A project manager is no stranger to challenge. Any project, whether miniscule or massive, presents a project manager with a unique set of obstacles that must be overcome. A project manager is not only charged with the task of clearly defining a project's requirements, but he or she must also be able to manage the time, cost, and quality of the project from beginning to end. Likewise, a project manager must also be able to deal with one of the most threatening obstacles: uncontrolled change. Also known to project managers as scope creep, this unfortunate occurrence can easily wreak havoc on a project if not managed well.

'Scope creep' is a phenomenon that occurs when requirements are allowed to pass in and out of the revolving door of project scope. Management of these changes is absolutely critical, because it could potentially make or break a project. If the process of change is not effectively controlled by the project manager, scope creep is a highly unavoidable, and likewise unfortunate, occurrence. Since a project is unlikely to be clearly defined early in its life cycle and needs room to evolve, scope creep is simply inevitable. A large amount of it, however, can be disastrous to a project's timeline, cost, and resources if the proper preparation measures are not taken.

Additional Functionality Affects Project Time, Cost, and Quality

When the scope starts to creep, new functionality must be added to cover the increased scope. This is represented by the quality arm of the triangle, which represents the ability of the product to fulfill the user requirements. The more requirements that are fulfilled, the better the product will be.

In these types of situations, you have three - and only three - options. You can (1) add time by delaying the project to allow more time for additional functionality development, (2) add cost by recruiting, hiring, or acquiring resources to complete the additional work, or (3) cut quality by trading off some non-essential requirements for new requirements.

With these additional requirements, however, come the following:

  • Additional discovery time that must be done to understand the impact to the end product.
  • Additional design time to reflect the impact requirements on the product features and usability.
  • Additional development time to produce to the requirements.
  • Additional testing time to validate that the requirements are met.
  • Additional complexity that increases incrementally with each new set of requirements.

Scope Creep is a Substantial Threat to Your Timeline

As a result of the effort associated with these tasks, it puts the project's timeline in jeopardy. According to a Computerworld survey, 80% of IT project managers reported scope creep to occur either 'always' or 'frequently' in projects. It is easy to understand why scope creep is such a threat to any project manager's timeline, especially if it is not being effectively managed well or at all.

Assuming that the project does not have an unlimited budget and that the product quality must remain constant, the biggest threat to the project will be an increased timeline. Fortunately, this is an area in which the project manager has the most control. Unfortunately, however, adding additional resources is not always the answer to the problem of maintaining schedule. In fact, it can actually have a negative effect on schedule and a significant impact on the project's overall cost.

In the book The Mythical Man Month by Fredrick Brooks, Brooks finds that adding people to a project doesn't necessarily speed it up. While it is true that more resources can speed up the delivery of a product, the increase in speed is not directly proportional to the amount of resource added. To put it another way, simply adding people to your project will not always ensure an earlier delivery. The main reason for this is the increased complexity of communication, which is a direct result from adding more people to a project. As each person is added to the project team the complexity of communication goes up exponentially, which eventually slows the pace of the project.

To promote on-time delivery of any project, the project manager must control the delicate balance between introducing change and maintaining the project's intended timeline, while also effectively controlling the cost and quality aspects of the project. This is a truly noble mission of any project manager that should not be taken lightly.

Plan for Scope Creep

Poor planning can attribute to scope creep. However, it is not necessarily the root cause. Scope creep results from the identification of additional requirements throughout the life of the project, which by the very nature of any project, is an inevitable outcome. Requirements definition is a planning (or also known as discovery) phase activity of most projects. Again, however, the identification of additional requirements is quite common beyond the initial planning stage.

Effectively planning for the discovery of new requirements and establishing project milestones for reviewing these requirements is an effective method for facilitating change control. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all the requirements during project planning. Therefore, establishing clearly defined change control processes is imperative for any project's success. Planning and communicating the process for change dramatically reduces the element of surprise for all project participants, because let's face it: no one on a project team looks forward to unanticipated surprises that have a negative effect on the project delivery.

Enforce Change Control

Change control outlines the business justification for adding or deleting requirements that were agreed upon earlier in the project. The modifications can and will most likely result in additional costs as a consequence of the additional effort imposed on the project and its resources. At project initiation, change control processes should be defined and the responsibility for change management processes must be established. It is always a good idea to have the initiator of the change request be directly involved in the change control.

Likewise, the effects to various components of the project should be quantified and evaluated against the value of the enhancement to the requirements. The project sponsors need to be informed of the impact of change on the time, cost, and quality components of the project and should consider these components as key inputs to the decision-making process. This exercise quickly differentiates the 'nice to have' requirements from the 'must have' requirements.

Get Formal Sign-off

Scope creep occurs more frequently when formalized sign-off does not take place. This is largely due to an underlying fear of accountability when the requirements are not completely understood. As a project manager, it is your responsibility to establish accountability within the project framework and to quantify to a sufficient level the impact of change. This ensures that the project stakeholders understand what is and is not to be delivered.

Enforcing formal signoffs that record the impact of change on time, cost, and quality is the very essence of effective change control. The advent of email has allowed for a higher level of comfort with sign-off. Many stakeholders are reluctant to physically sign a document, but have no problem responding via email that they agree with the newly proposed requirements.

Know When to Say 'No'

A project manager's greatest responsibility is to deliver a quality product in a timely manner at a minimal cost. Scope creep most often negatively affects the timeliness and cost-effectiveness of the project.

Effective change control weighs the benefits of change against the value of the enhanced requirements across the project's time, cost, and quality. Unfortunately, project managers rarely have unilateral authority to decide what is included or excluded from scope, although they certainly can influence the decision.

A strong-willed project manager at times must simply say 'No' - or at a minimum, vote 'No' if given the opportunity - to effectively influence the project stakeholders to make a decision that is the most beneficial to the business goals in relation to the project. Remember, project participants frequently rely on the project manager's best judgment as to what should be attempted within the scope of the project's time, cost, and resources. Alternatives for phased-in approaches allow for the iterative benefits and compromises to add requirements, which results in win-win scenarios for those who prefer additional enhancements and those who do not.

Plan to Manage Change to Overcome Scope Creep

Scope creep will most likely present itself within the lifecycle of most projects. Therefore, it is important to communicate the process for addressing change at the project's kick-off meeting. Project participants that have a clear understanding of the components in the delivered project are less likely to ask for enhancements in the mid-stream.

It is the project manager's responsibility to ensure that all project stakeholders have been communicated to and understand the objectives of the project. Likewise, when requirements are added and change is inevitable, it is important to document the business justification and to outline the specific impacts to the project's timing, cost, and resources. This will ensure that all of the decision-makers have the necessary information to weigh the value against. Project managers are typically influential members of project teams and should utilize their influence to advise what is best for the overall project.

A project manager is no stranger to obstacles. Each and every project presents itself as a challenge to deliver an end product that fulfills a project's requirements while being considerate of time, cost, and quality. Scope creep can be a true threat to any project, so it is important to plan to manage scope creep regardless of the project's actual scope. This advanced planning of scope creep not only allows the project team to effectively control the phenomenon when it occurs, but it also ensures that scope creep will not be a detrimental obstacle to the project's success.


This is a guest post written by Tom Schaetzle.

Vice President of Professional Services

Galvin Technologies