5 Keys to Avoiding Scope Creep

For all of us who have managed projects, or managed Project Managers, we know that one of the biggest challenges is controlling the project scope. It's so easy to just leave the scope relatively ambiguous and hope that it defines itself as the project moves forward.

This method isn't all bad....as the project team learns more about the influences affecting the project, a scope will absolutely reveal itself.  But, there's one big problem: there are no constraints. This means that your project scope can explode more quickly than anyone is prepared for. Have you ever gone over budget or taken longer than anticipated, and only after the project was complete realized that it was because your scope got out of hand? I think we've all been there. So, here are a few ways to define the project scope at the beginning of a project so that cost and schedule are much easier to manage for the duration of your project:

Scope Gears

  1. Determine Who Defines the Scope.  For all of you experienced Project Managers out there, you're probably thinking that the Sponsor defines the scope. This may not necessarily be true. Is there a Subject Matter Expert, or department lead that your Sponsor is counting on for guidance here? In many organizations, the Project Sponsor won't necessarily have technical experience in the field that defines the project. Make sure you're asking the decision-maker to define and approve the project scope right up front.
  2. Define Your Objectives. Many organizations we work with blur the lines between "Objectives" and "Scope". We see it time and time again that a Scope is described when asking for "Objectives". Do you know the difference? For example, if you're a restaurant looking for seating for your customers, you may define your project objectives as: "Install 25 new tables for customers".  But, isn't that really a scope and not an objective? An Objective could looks something like, "Increase customer capacity by 50 seats." As you can see, this opens the door to a much wider range of potential alternatives. It's possible that larger tables or bar seating could result in the same benefit to the organization at a lower cost. So, when considering your Objectives, make sure they're clearly defined and that they don't automatically jump to the solution. This will help with Scope control as the project progresses.
  3. Know How Much Flexibility You Have. Will 52 seats push us past our fire code capacity? Is 48 seats close enough if we add a grab-and-go option too? Knowing the flexibility and constraints of your project objectives is critical to making sure your project is successful, and that your scope stays in control. At the beginning of the project, consult with your project Stakeholders to clearly define expectations and priorities. As the project progresses, is it an option to cut part of the scope to maintain budget? Or, is the budget flexible enough to accommodate changes down the road? Know your constraints and what potential flexibility you might have later.
  4. Know Your Assumptions. Many organizations do a very poor job documenting their assumptions. Are the project Stakeholders assuming a Summer completion date? Write that down. Does the plan assume only 2 chairs per table for our restaurant renovation? Write that down. Only with a written assumptions log can a project team later go back and compare their plan with the original assumptions for the project. Assumptions can and will change along the way, but it is likely impossible to define and control project scope without a formally documented list of assumptions.
  5. Ask Questions. We Project Managers have a tendency to fall into the trap of just trying to fill out the blanks on our forms. We get so caught up in completing the paperwork that we forget to look up and see what other information is available to us. Treat every interaction with the project Stakeholders and Subject Matter Experts as an opportunity to paint a more complete mental picture of what you're trying to achieve with this project. I guarantee that members of your project team have other ideas or experience that can greatly contribute to your project success - if you would only take the time to listen!