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How Should the Project Manager Deal with Scope Creep?

~ By Kuntal Thakore

Project schedule concept with bar graph and time factor

Every project has (or should have) a set of deliverables, an assigned budget, and an expected closure time. There are agreed upon requirements and tasks to complete prior to the closure of project. These constitute the scope of the project. Any amount of variation in the scope of project can affect the schedule, budget and in turn the success of project.

Scoping is the separation between what is included in and what is excluded from project. Scope creep occurs when the line is moved, usually outwards. Thus what was excluded is now included, making a project in most cases larger.

According to the PMBOK, scope creep is defined as adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval. This phenomenon can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered a negative occurrence that is to be avoided.

In the past, I have participated (not as a project lead or a project manager) in a number of projects that failed due to scope creep. I could not find any formal statistics to refer to, however, I've noted that majority of those projects failed due some form of scope creep. Note that the PMBOK considers a project as failed anytime it is over budget or does not meet the predetermined schedule deadline.

Scope creep can originate from:

  • Poor implementation of change control
  • Incomplete gathering of requirements before the beginning of project execution
  • Insufficient involvement of critical stakeholders (including the customer)
  • Lack of support from the executive sponsor

Scope creep can be classified as:

  • Technical Scope Creep
  • Business Scope Creep

The technical scope creep can show up when the project team wants to please the customer and is not able to reject the customer's request for a change in the requirements during project execution. Gold-plating is another reason which can cause technical scope creep. In this case, the project team (or development/design team) adds additional features and functionality that are not part of original requirements in order to please the customer.

The business scope creep occurs due to external forces that may be beyond the control of project manager. An example might be the continual changes in market trends, which makes previously defined requirements now obsolete.

One can avoid scope creep by managing the scope of project effectively. There are a number of ways to control or avoid scope creep:

  • Involve the customer and/or the end users early in the project
  • Thoroughly analyse and gather requirements during the initial stages of the project
  • Introduce a Change Control Board (CCB) team that would evaluate the risk of implementing the changes
  • Make sure to involve critical stakeholders throughout the project phases (especially during the planning phase)
  • Avoid gold-plating and gain the ability to refuse changes in requirements with proper reasons and support
  • In extreme cases, stop the project so that new additional requirements can be properly scoped and integrated rather than tacked on

Two additional points need to be made here:

We need to be careful not to confuse scope creep with progressive elaboration. According to the PMBOK Version 3, progressive elaboration means developing the product in steps, and continuing by increments. For example, during early strategic planning, when information is less defined, work packages may be decomposed to the milestone level. As more is known about the upcoming events in the near term they can be decomposed into activities

Secondly, note that the idea of scope creep has evolved in SCRUM. The product catalogue (scope) is dynamic and it changes throughout the software product development life cycle as long as the customer feels that those changes add value to the project and accepts the responsibility for them. At the same time, every attempt is made to make sure that scope within each SCRUM sprint is strictly enforced. This evolution of scope creep in SCRUM does represent some interesting problems, which are beyond the scope of this article.

Kuntal Thakore, PMP, CSM has 15 years of experience working on projects in the Software Industry covering areas of Customer Service, Quality Assurance, IT Administration and Software Development. Kuntal is Co-Director of PMI Silicon Valley CM chapter. Kuntal has managed and participated in IT and Software Development projects ranging in size of a small team to large corporate-wide projects. He is able to build cross-functional teams, negotiate various levels of hierarchy, and apply his experience to small and large businesses alike. He has strong project management and customer centric skills with strong technical background to work cross functionally to resolve customer issues. You can catch him discussing topics on project management at Kuntal Thakore's Blog


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