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As a project manager, have you ever been faced with a scenario in which you are fulfilling project requirements that were not stated in the agreement (project charter or project management plan)? Have you ever handled a project for a “dynamic” sponsor who keeps changing the project brief, deliverables, requirements, or desired quality? Have you ever been involved with a project where changes were made to the project at the beginning without relevant time adjustment and the sponsor begins to look at you as incompetent towards the end of the project because it cannot be completed on time? Or maybe the sponsor even went to the extreme of firing you as the project manager?

If any of the scenarios above sounds familiar, then you most likely have been a victim of scope creep. Scope creep can be defined as uncontrolled or continuous growth in a project’s scope (Wikipedia). While it is almost impossible for changes not to occur in a project, i.e., to deliver to the sponsor what he originally wants on in the first meeting, scope creep happens as a result of improper documentation and management of changes that occur along the line.

Scope creep can also occur as a result of improper scope definition. This occurs when the project boundaries are not properly defined between the project sponsor and the project manager. In whichever way the creep occurs, it involves additional deliverables or requirements that are added after the project has kicked off and are not properly reviewed and documented. The project manager is then expected to meet these new requirements using the original resources and within the time allocated in the original scope.

Although these changes are sometimes small and, as a project manager, we might feel sympathetic toward the client in accepting them, it is among the project management industry’s best practices to avoid scope creep and ensure proper documentation of all changes. Moreover, if we as project managers allow scope creep in our project knowingly or unknowingly, then we should get ready to bear whatever responsibility comes with it as well.

Now that we have a good understanding of what scope creep is and what causes it, the remaining part of this article will discuss six ways to avoid and manage scope creep in a project. These are:

  • Proper definition of scope and objectives
  • Effective change control process
  • Proper documentation
  • Communication
  • Develop and use project schedule
  • Dedicated project manager

1. Proper scope definition and verification

The project scope defines the boundaries of the project and details all the deliverables and requirements, as agreed between the project sponsor and the project manager or management team, while the objective defines what the project is meant to achieve.

As project managers, it is important for us to have a clear understanding of the client’s requirements. Often, while briefing the project manager, the client might cut across a series of unrelated requirements without knowing and expect the project manager to make meaning of the relevant objectives and sift out the irrelevancies. In situations like this, it is necessary to get back to the sponsor with the documented requirement to get an approval. This ensures that the sponsor and clients are on the same page as far as the scope is concerned.

Scope definition and verification go beyond just the project sponsor but should be extended to other relevant stakeholders in the project. As a project manager, organizing a stakeholder meeting is important to give stakeholders the requirement plan and allow them to make changes before commencement of work. This doesn’t mean that other changes cannot be made during the course of the project.

2. Effective change control process

The change control process is a way of ensuring that changes are introduced to a project in a controlled and coordinated manner. This process is very easy and is mostly carried out with the use of project management software. In developing an effective change control system, you must consider who reviews and approves a change and the method of implementation of the change. This information should be documented in the project management plan.

You should, however, note that there are some changes that cannot be made without the permission of the project sponsor or his/her representative, unless they were part of the change control board. The resultant effect of any change in respect to time, scope, quality, and resources should be properly documented. This leads us to our next point.

3. Documentation! Documentation!! Documentation!!!

The role of effective documentation in avoiding scope creep cannot be overemphasized. This is the single most important thing to do in order to avoid scope creep. Documentation starts with the project requirements. Proper records are required when defining the project requirement and objectives. You should have the agreed requirements, scope, and projected objective written down and circulated among necessary stakeholders. Conflicting stakeholder requirements should also be taken into consideration and properly documented.

We all agree that changes are bound to occur at various stages of a project lifecycle and documenting these changes helps to ensure proper control and management of the change. The project management software can be used in documenting the change, who reviewed it, and the status of the change, i.e., if it was accepted or rejected.

For example, in a building construction project, the original floor material described was black polished solid wood. However, along the line, the architect decided that a tiled floor might be better, while the sponsor thinks a carpet would be more economical. These diverse opinions should be documented and a meeting of the change control board should be called to decide. A proper documentation of which finishing was approved and rejected should be made, including reasons for approval and the resultant effect on the cost, quality, and deadline of the project. In this scenario, since the sponsor is focused on economy, it is important to get the final approval of any of the chosen materials from the sponsor, as the sponsor provides the financial backup for the project.

At this juncture, it is important to mention that, after documenting, there is a need to get a sign-off from the project sponsor and other stakeholders. Although the signature is necessary and a proof of agreement, what you want to achieve is for your clients to understand what they are paying for and what they are not paying for.

4. Communication

As a project manager, by now you should have realized that about 90% of your time is spent on communicating. Furthermore, your role as a PM is mostly as a middle man between the project sponsor and the project management team. There is, therefore, the need to carry both parties along.

While the project stakeholders might be happy, it is important to ensure the project management team members are happy as well, because they are directly involved in the implementation of a change. Sometimes changes are suggested by the project management team and they should not be taken for granted. However, the change control process should be explained to the project team and the suggested changes should be documented and presented before the change control board.

5. Develop and use project schedule

In one of the posts in our PMP series, we discussed the knowledge area of project time management (Part one; Part two). Proper planning, development, and control of project schedule, as discussed in the posts above, are required to avoid scope creep. The project schedule is developed from the project requirement, which groups the requirements into activities and tasks. The schedule can then be cross-referenced against the requirements to ensure that none of the requirements is left unattended to.

It is also important to determine the critical path using a PERT chat. This would guide in resource allocation for the project. In the case of an additional requirement, you should revisit your schedule to incorporate the task that comes with achieving this requirement in the schedule. It is not impossible for the critical path to change on various occasions during the course of the project; what is more important is to always identify which path is critical at any point in time during the project.

Where time is a major constraint, techniques such as crashing or fast tracking can be used.

6. Dedicated project manager

The project manager is the one who coordinates other project resources to achieve the project goal. Your personality as a project manager goes a long way in determining the success of the project. If you are ineffective as a project manager, there is higher probability of scope creep to occur in the project you are managing.

Once the project sponsor notices your weakness as a manager, there is the probability for the sponsor to unduly exploit your weakness by increasing the project without an equivalent increase in resources, leaving you to bear all the risk involved with the additional requirement, which could lead to your ultimately being fired from the project.

As a project manager, you must be responsible, dedicated, and accountable to effectively manage a project void of scope creep.

In conclusion, we agree that scope creep can be caused by a number of factors, most of which are preventable. In this article, we explored six ways a project manager can prevent scope creep. I would like to emphasize again that lack of proper documentation is the biggest cause of scope creep in most projects. Thanks again for reading and I look forward to discussing more interesting project management topics in the future.