A 2020 study showed that only a third of all projects are finished on time, and as much as 44% are late, over budget, or delivered with missing features.
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Projects grow all the time and as the byproduct of a variety of causes. In some cases, a creative or analyst has an idea for a tiny tweak that will improve the user experience, boost conversions, etc.
In other cases, an executive or stakeholder has an expectation that must be met. And we all know that those are the sort of conversations that can lead to sleepless nights.
But regardless of the reason, scope creep happens. There’s no escape from that. And as a project manager, your role is to shepherd each project from start to finish (and use your shepherd’s staff to knock any hint of creep back into its place).
However, 2020 inflicted a lot of changes on companies around the world. With many people still working from home, project managers have a new set of problems to solve.
One of those obstacles is how to manage scope creep when you’re working on a remote team.
Project growth is a good thing, at least in theory. And the primary causes behind it are pretty common. But most of the time, the suggestions behind scope creep are made with the best of intentions. Usually, the perspective is “We’ll just work a little harder,” but that is a dangerous band-aid to use more than once.
We’re all familiar with the project management triangle’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s something most managers have internalized, a sort of juggling act that pools all of your team’s assets and uses every single piece to push a project forward.
However, the project management triangle is only as effective as it is talked about. And that’s where you run the risk of taking this principle for granted and failing to use it properly.
A big part of remote work is isolation, which became all too apparent for people during COVID-19 quarantine. But while cubicles give us a sense of privacy at work, creating a literal physical distance between teams quickly breaks down the established lines of communication.
In other words, the main avenue of dealing with scope creep (clear and frequent communication) starts to fall apart. So if you aren’t actively looking for ways to deal with changes to your projects, then the risk to your team is at an all-time high.
Yes, that sounds daunting. Maybe even a little dramatic. But the reality is that project management is all about collaboration across roles. And once people lose sight of the big picture, they’ll forget how their work affects the work of other team members.
That’s a breeding ground for scope creep. And with remote work becoming a permanent solution for a lot of companies, it’s up to you — as the project manager — to adjust your role and set up your team for long-term success.
Knowledge sharing is an enormous influence on a team’s overall efficiency. So while scope creep is something every project manager dreads, it’s not necessarily something in everyone else’s vernacular. And that makes it invaluable that you talk about it with your team.
If you’re working as part of a remote team, it’s easy to get caught up in the logistics of managing across different work environments. (Dealing with different time zones is a whole other issue.)
The easiest way to avoid unexpected project growth is to talk about it. “Scope creeps” is kind of a dirty phrase for project managers. But the only way to equip your team with the tools to fight it is to make sure they know why it’s such a risk, how it impacts others, and what everyone should do when they see it start to arrive.
Image from JWSuretyBonds
Talking about scope creep removes the taboo label. Point out that a lot of causes behind project growth come from good intentions, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic.
Hopefully, by discussing this obstacle with your team, it’ll be an issue that everyone is comfortable dealing with in the future. At the very least, your team will know what to do when someone else requests a new feature.
As an added bonus, thinking about how you can encourage knowledge sharing will improve the overall effectiveness of your team.
One difficulty of remote work is that project managers aren’t quite as accessible. Sure, you may just be a quick message or email away. That works perfectly in a traditional office environment.
But “Out of sight, out of mind” has taken on a new meaning after Coronavirus quarantine, and it affects our work lives in a palpable way. People may feel uncomfortable about interrupting someone, or sending a message when they can see you’re “In a meeting” status.
Lines of communication are the framework of reliable project management. So if you aren’t actively looking for a way to work around this obstacle, your projects are in jeopardy.
In most cases, that “obstacle” is a false perception. We both know you’re available to your team members, and you’re always happy to provide direction or answer a question. But all of that doesn’t matter if people believe you’re too busy or distracted to help them.
You can sidestep that issue entirely by equipping your team to deal with scope creep on their own. Yes, you still want to talk with them about it, and make yourself available. But if you train people to watch for it, they’ll feel empowered to address the issue and include you in that process.
And if they know to copy you into an email thread or defer a question to you, that will make sure that you can head off project growth before it picks up any steam. Giving your team members a platform to show initiative and deal with it themselves just builds confidence for everyone involved.
Individual team members can easily get comfortable within the narrow focus of their day-to-day jobs. (And I am speaking from experience across multiple jobs and industries.)
Without any knowledge of the big picture, it’s easy to see a small change as something that will only affect a single person’s workload. But the truth is that it only takes a few small changes for a deadline to slip, and that’s when scope creep becomes a real and dangerous hazard.
As a project manager, your two best skills are seeing the big picture and communicating with your team. Make sure you’re combining those two elements. It might be a weekly meeting or sharing a link to your spreadsheets — anything that gives people a window into the project at large.
That’s a tried and true method for helping team members better understand how their work factors into the entire process, and how those “small changes” can quickly turn into big consequences.
Creating a sense of shared accountability helps you take advantage of all of these steps. It’s not always realistic to reduce project length or to put closer parameters on each person’s piece of the overall process...even if those would give you a convenient way to manage scope creep across a remote team.
Collaboration gives you an alternative to that. By creating shared responsibility on a project, you’re able to integrate people into different (and perhaps out-of-their-comfort-zone) aspects.
There’s no arguing that collaboration encourages communication. So even if they aren’t communicating as much with their project manager, there’s a greater likelihood that people will spot scope creep in someone else’s work.
Again, that allows you to share the responsibility for calling out scope creep. The most successful remote teams are the ones that feel empowered to do their best work without losing a sense of collaboration. The fact that it can also manage scope creep is just an added benefit.
Google spent years researching the attributes shared by its best internal teams. And the most common trait they could find was psychological safety.
While you could file that away into the “emotional intelligence” folder, the smart project manager takes that a step further. (After all, if Google values it so highly, then it’s something we all should try to integrate into our training routines and our management principles.)
According to Google’s findings from this scientific journal, “Psychological safety refers to an individual's perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk … They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
Let’s tie this back into how we can manage scope creep as part of a remote team. A huge aspect of psychological safety is giving your team the knowledge and resources they need to do their job, whether they’re in the office or at home or hunkered down in their favorite coffee shop.
But part of doing a job well is understanding how that role fits in with others. And that’s why all four of the actions (mentioned above) matter.
Scope creep is a fact of life, unfortunately. And even a perfect project manager can’t be on top of everything at once. That’s why trusting your team to take action and ask questions can make all the difference in meeting deadlines and staying under budget, especially in our current remote work world.