Project Management Foundations – Managing the Creep
By Steve Hart
I have discussed on several occasions that “scope creep” is not a term that I am particularly fond of. The PMBOK® refers to project scope creep as uncontrolled changes. I have heard project managers say on more than one occasion, “My project is suffering from scope creep”. In my mind that statement translates into, “I have been unable to control change on my project”. One of the key responsibilities of the project manager is to identify and control change – in other words “managing the creep” on your project.
Team members often talk about the amount of change on the project. Change is an inevitable component of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager effectively manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. The other aspect of good change management is that the project manager effectively communicates the source and impact of project changes. The worst form change on a project is the type that is not controlled and cannot be explained – it is the CREEP.
5 Tips to Managing Creep
- Creep relates to all aspects of the project baseline – When most people talk about creep it is in the context of scope. In the context of scope, creep is the small features added throughout the project life cycle that in sum total can have a significant impact on cost, time and quality. Creep also relates to other the aspects of the project baseline – time and cost. In the context of time, creep is the deadlines missed by a day or two, or the activities that take a few hours longer than expected. In the context of cost, creep is the consulting rate that is a few dollars / hour higher than budgeted, the consultant that is required a few weeks longer than planned, or the software license costs that are a bit higher than anticipated. Any one of these examples could have an impact on overall project performance (what is delivered, when it is delivered, and how much it costs), and if it is not controlled and managed, it represents creep. If you are only focused on scope creep, you are only managing part of the overall CREEP in your project.
Establish rigor around creep in the planning process – The stronger the baseline plans, the easier it is to identify and manage creep throughout the remainder of the project life cycle. Is the scope well defined and organized in the form of work packages in the WBS? Are the work packages at the level that can be tracked throughout the project life cycle? Is the schedule constructed in a manner that reflects how the work will actually be completed? Are cost assumptions well documented within the project budget? In addition, the project management approach detailed within the Project Management Plan establishes processes and tools that will be utilized to directly or indirectly manage creep. Examples include:
- Project metrics – How will project performance be measured?
Materiality – What represents significant variances that will trigger corrective actions? These variance targets can be expressed as days, hours, dollars, or a percent.
Change Control – What process will be utilized to manage change as it is identified?
Roles and Responsibility – Who has responsibility and accountability for deliverables or groups of deliverables?
Use project metrics to monitor and identify creep – It is important to monitor and understand key project metrics in a manner that helps identify potential (or real) changes as early as possible. These metrics help identify early warning signs for changes that may be “flying under the radar” – uncontrolled change = CREEP.
Some early warning signs include the following:
- Schedule slippage
- Tasks not started on-time
- Tasks not completed on-time
- Tasks with less progress than planned (particularly on larger effort or longer duration tasks)
Variance Trends (Cost / Schedule / Risk / Scope / Quality)
- Consistent cost variance trends (overall or on specific cost types / categories)
- Consistent schedule variance trends (overall or on specific project phases / milestones)
- Actual work effort (or duration to complete) to complete tasks is consistently higher (or takes longer) than planned
- New tasks or deliverables are identified throughout the project life cycle (pointing to gaps in the planning process)
- Overall project risk (overall assessment of number, severity, and probability of risks)
- Defects are identified at a higher than planned rate, or the closure rate is slower than planned
Open Risks and Issues
- An increase in the number of risks and issues, particularly if they are focused in a specific project area, is a good indication of a potential change / adjustment required.
- ssues that are not closed sometimes point to a project change that is required to close the issue.
- Schedule slippage
Turn creep into change – A change represents a permanent deviation from this baseline plan. The term ‘permanent’ is important. It is possible that there is a deviation from the baseline plan that will be self-correcting and is really only a deviation due to timing (when something has occurred vs. when it was planned to occur). When a deviation is deemed to be permanent, it is identified as a potential change and is managed through change control process. Managing a potential change through the change control process moves it from an “uncontrolled change” to a “controlled change” – reducing the level of creep in your project. If several permanent deviations are below the materiality threshold, but in aggregate above the threshold, consider grouping them into a single change to move through the change control process. Again, it is important to strike a good balance between the discipline to control change and the flexibility to respond to changes in customer needs and expectations. The level of rigor and control around formalizing and approving changes should be “sized” appropriately to both the organization and the project. Some considerations include:
- Project size, complexity, and risk profile are evaluated to adapt the change control processes to the project.
Projects that have significant schedule and/or cost constraints tend to require increased focus on change control processes.
Projects with higher visibility and strategic importance to the organization tend to have more structured change control processes.
Understand and communicate the cumulative impact of change – The project core team, project sponsor, and steering committee members should be aware of the cumulative impact of changes (comparing actual project performance to the original expectations established in the baseline plan). Project managers often will fall back on the excuse that the project is over budget or late because there were project changes, but they cannot quickly explain the changes that account for the primary deviations from the original plan. Reconciling the actual project performance (schedule & cost) to the original baseline plan helps understand the “unexplained” variances. An unexplained variance is the difference between the total schedule or cost variance and the approved project changes / impacts. A project with too high a percentage of unexplained variances is usually an indication of a project with inadequate attention to change control processes. These projects have too many changes that are “flying under the radar” – too much CREEP. Good projects managers can pretty precisely describe the difference between the original baseline and the actual results – strive to be a good project manager.
Steve Hart, PMP is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter, where he was active as the editor of the chapter newsletter, and PMP certification instructor. You can read more from Steve Hart on his blog.