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Preventing Scope Inflation
By Barry Otterholt

Scope inflation is what happens when work grows beyond the minimum required to get the job done. It results in cost and schedule overruns, quality compromises, and disengaged project staff. It follows a common pattern, and so it can be predicted. More importantly, since it can be predicted, it can be prevented. Here’s how it works.

At the start of a project, conflicting biases are not evident, but they exist. The customer, who you represent as a project manager, is eager to get the changes this project promises to deliver. They know if they don’t get them now, the window of opportunity may be gone. The solution-provider, often a vendor you’ve contracted with, is eager to get the project done, on time and within budget. They know if they miss the schedule or go over budget, their reputation will suffer in the marketplace. They also know they could lose money on the deal, which would not help their career advancement within their company. The customer has an innate scope-maximizing bias, and the vendor has a scope-minimizing bias. To complicate matters, the scope as defined in most RFPs and contracts allows for a broad range of legitimate interpretation. So you can see how conflict is wired into the project from the start.

A good vendor will point out the potential for scope inflation early in a project, when the customer wants more than is being delivered. The inexperienced project manager, will advocate whatever the customer wants without weighing what the vendor is saying, and so will challenge the vendor to do what is being asked by the customer. The vendor will generally agree to your wishes, to avoid tensions with you or your customer so early in the project, even though they could argue that their lesser interpretation of scope is reasonable.

In getting the vendor to agree with the more expansive definition of scope, you have just committed your project team and the customer to more work downstream. They will have more quality assurance to complete, more documentation to write, more change to manage, more policies to write or change, more procedures to write or change, more compliance or integrity testing, and more training to deliver to all affected customer staff. The impacts can be well beyond what the customer bargained for, and can be more than they can absorb within the budgeted resources and agreed schedule.

Many times I’ve been asked to recover a troubled project. I’ve often found a deep chasm between the customer and vendor that originated from a project manager persuading the vendor to do something they shouldn’t have, simply because the customer was within their contractual rights asking for it. It’s like if you got your doctor to agree you should go on a junk food diet because that’s what you want now, just to have to go back to them later for a much deeper problem.

A customer bias is good, but should not cause you to blindly advocate anything they wish, if the downstream consequences will hurt them. The better answer is for you to anticipate downstream consequences and present them in simple terms to the customer. If the customer makes an informed decision to proceed as requested, you update the project plan to reflect increased effort in affected tasks, and any impacts on budget and schedule. You affirm the change with the Sponsor, and proceed according to plan.

Adopting this objective approach to project management will cause the project to move along the most efficient schedule possible. It also keeps the project resources and schedule in balance with scope.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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