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The scope went through the roof

By David Alev . . . 

Why does
scope change?

How do you recognize it?

How can you protect against scope creep?

Charlie the house painter arrived with his crew on Monday morning. He had earlier given me a detailed estimate and we had picked a day a few weeks into the future to start work. They showed up on time, had the tools ready and quickly worked up a plan. The crew started work 10 minutes after they arrived.

I began thinking “He’s quite a professional. I wish all I.T. projects worked that way, ” as I do whenever I see a group of people flawlessly execute a complicated plan. I knew the exterior of the house would look great when they were done.

In the next few days, Charlie and his team continued to impress me. I’d go around the house when I got the chance to inspect their work. At times I would discover various minor repair items that needed to be done unrelated to painting. But those needed a lot more time, expertise and courage than I had. They had the tools and they had the 30-foot extendable ladders that my wife wouldn’t let me get on. I’d ask Charlie, and he’d say “no problem.” A few hours later or the next day, I’d see them work on that.

“Too bad,” I’d say to myself. Good painter, but doesn’t know his scope management at all. He could lose money that way. “Maybe I’ll talk to him about that at the end of the job.”

I asked Charlie a number of times about a small but persistent roof leak we had been having. He’d say, ”I’m not a roofer, but I think your problem is such and such, etc.” He would give me advice about what I needed to fix it but would not volunteer to do it. I finally had to ask, “Charlie, will you fix that?”

That’s when Charlie’s hidden scope management skills surfaced. He went up, examined the whole roof and said: “David, I found a couple of other leaks. You know the roof wasn’t part of the estimate. I can do it for this much.” I accepted the offer; he got the materials and fixed the leaks.

You see, he knew what he had to manage. He knew how to recognize change, he knew how to react to change, and he knew how to recognize new opportunities.

People in the service business have perfected these techniques over the ages. Painters, carpenters, builders, car mechanics, landscapers and others know where the boundaries of their services lie. Is that so different from I.T. projects? Generally, no.

For a very large number of participants in our workshops “scope creep” is at the top of the problems they struggle with. It shows they’re aware that scope creep has been recognized for a long time as one of the top causes of project failure. But most I.T. professionals interpret that as having to “stick to their guns”, “deflect any and all changes”, “get the client to sign the change order” etc. In other words, a disease that has to be fought, an almost personal attack on the service provider.

It’s only so if you let it. Scope evolves for a number of reasons. I will only list some of the “valid” ones: Your client has acquired more knowledge of the problem and a better insight into the solution. So have you. Business requirements may have changed due to market realities, regulatory changes or developments in the underlying technologies.

Make sure you have a good scope definition and know it very well. You will not survive if you don’t have those. Then tune your “receiver” to recognize scope change signals.

Change signals arrive in many forms other than the direct and clear-cut “You will also perform such and such.” For example, when you’re asked to go talk to a person or department who had not been anywhere on your radar screen before - you can be sure there’s scope change coming about.

Or innocent statements that begin with: “I wish it did . . .”, “You know, it will have to...”, “By the way, . . .”, “Come to think of it , … “ are all classic change signals.

What’s the best way to react to scope changes? (I should really have said “scope change attempts.” A change attempt is only an attempt until all sides agree.)

Here’s a 3-step approach you can use with many of the scope change attempts (SCA) you encounter:

1. Take a breath, deeper than usual. The SCA is not a personal attack. And it is rarely a case of the client trying to get “something for nothing”. The deep breath also gives you an extra fraction of a second to perform the 2nd step.

2. Think for about three seconds: Is this really a change? How sure am I? If I object, can I support my objection? Or is it just an inconvenience I’m trying to avoid? Then, if it’s worth pursuing:

3. Ask questions (instead of making statements.) “Has this been there all along or is this new?” . . . ”Did I miss that part? . . .” “Did you mean to make this a part of our current phase?” . . . “Wasn’t this resolved earlier?” etc. About half of all SCA’s can be overcome with similar clarifying questions as the scope changers will recognize they are going beyond the original agreement and step back or postpone the change.

If they don’t step back, then ask ”Can we discuss this later as it appears to be beyond our scope -- as I understand it?”, giving them the benefit of doubt and you the time to formulate a proposed approach to handling the change.

A properly formulated response includes a clear description of the change, suggested alternatives, the impact on the schedule and/or cost of the project, the associated risks and a clearly defined path for the evaluation and approval of the alternatives. That’s why you need more time.

Can some scope changes be allowed to just happen? It depends on the effort required, the leeway your project manager has given you and most importantly, whom you are committing for the delivery of that change. Remember the former senator who said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we’re talking real money.”

Absolutely. Some scope changes that are clearly beyond your original work package may turn out to be the source of additional work - commonly called add-on work, engagement expansion, upselling etc.

Good scope management always keeps that possibility in mind. It’s a great way to turn a possible threat into an advantage. Some service organizations thrive by expanding existing projects by identifying additional “value-added” work they can perform for their clients. The keyword is “value-added,” not “nickel and diming” or “padding the contract.” Your client will be happier for it. And your project manager and employer will love you for it.

As Captain Renault reminds us in the movie “Casablanca” where he says “Round up the usual suspects”, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind a profile of client characteristics that commonly cause scope changes.

Or as Charlie would say, “I can tell those who are going to give me a hard time by the state of their front lawns.”

See if you recognize any of the following from your vantage point, add to the list if you need to and be extra receptive when you’re with them:

  • Those with only sporadic involvement with your project (part-timers)

  • Those with only recent involvement (parachutists)

  • Perfectionists, protectionists

  • People you don’t recognize in meetings (“new faces”)

  • “Gurus” whose existence depends on demonstrating superior knowledge.

Refine your list and keep it on your mind at all times. It will keep you from missing important change signals.

HOW MUCH OF CHARLIE DO YOU SEE IN YOURSELF? His sense of boundaries, his commitment to serve, his discovery of new opportunities?

When we reached the end of the job, I asked Charlie about scope expansion. He said, “Well the first few were freebies because I pretty much had built in those in the estimate, but the roof - I had to charge you.” 

And how much extra do you think he ended up charging me? I would bet my roof he charged me enough to cover the roof work AND the minor “free” repairs.

When he came in to get his check, he went straight to the dining room, which is under the first leak I had noticed. He looked up to the ceiling, looked at me and . . .

What do you think he said?

To see if he said what you thought, visit :

Can you think of other “usual suspects”?
To share them with others, visit our Forums.

Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Brazos Consulting. You may reprint or distribute this document as long as it has not been modified and proper credit is given to Brazos Consulting and The Consulting Academy. Web links are permitted only in a "new window".

Random tips from our

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Tip #20 (Getting work done)

Proposals, analysis, design and presentations are only part of the story. Don't get caught up in the "prep" work. Delivery is a key component of your success. Plan as though your career depended on it.

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