Project Constraints: Scope - What is Scope and How Can It Be Managed?

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From Great Expectations to Outstanding Results

Every project begins with great expectations. Having made its way through the first few stages of the project cycle, a team finally reaches the implementation phase full of energy. In most organizations, what happens next is typical: stakeholders contact project managers, asking to “squeeze in just one more thing.” Or, team members start hearing news on the grapevine about how a project is “changing focus.” In the worst cases, project managers must cope with the demands of new stakeholders who weren’t present from the identification to the presentation portions of the project.

Whatever the cause, a change in the scope of a project can cause the biggest damage to a team’s end result. While some leaders pride themselves on pushing teams harder to achieve even more than they planned, most organizations simply fall into a hole of oversized expectations. Project managers can maintain control over this project constraint by watching for three common threats:

Challenge #1: Feature Creep

This term from the software development world can easily apply to any project that suddenly finds itself bloating with requests. Most project managers associate feature creep with conversations that contain the phrase, “while you’re in there…” Most incidences of feature creep actually start with good intentions. A team member may have discovered a need for a new enhancement, or an element from one portion of the project may become applicable to the project as a whole.

Regardless of the intent, it’s up to a dedicated project manager to make sure feature creep doesn’t cause the entire enterprise to derail from its other two project constraints. When time and budget can accommodate new requests, project managers can graciously agree to them. However, managers who discover that a “simple” task could throw a team over budget or off schedule must firmly deny new features during the implementation phase.

In many cases, project managers can use the “parking lot” method of logging requests and addressing them as time and budget permit. At other times, managers must simply refer requestors to the original project documentation to back up their belief that new features must be put on hold.

Challenge #2: Lack of Clarity

When projects rush through the appraisal and preparation stages of the project cycle, they can suffer a lack of clarity that will threaten to knock teams far off course. It’s easy enough for feature creep to happen in strongly defined projects. It’s almost impossible to avoid it when projects aren’t clearly defined. Furthermore, without a guiding vision for a project, stakeholders can muddle a team’s progress by inserting their own ideas and agendas.

The project manager must exercise strong leadership skills in this kind of environment, especially if the lack of clarity infects team members’ morale. To prevent sudden changes in the scope of a project, a strong manager must carefully and accurately document project details from the very beginning of the project cycle. For project managers picking up a team midstream, taking time to document progress so far creates an opportunity to reconnect with the original vision that inspired the project in the first place.

Challenge #3: Changing Agendas

In the worst instances where teams violate project constraints, a new set of stakeholders enters the process during the implementation phase. When new stakeholders don’t understand the original intent of a project, they may demand major changes. Expert project managers use these discussions as an opportunity to return to the appraisal and presentation stages of the cycle, hopefully to wrangle a new budget and timeline. Unfortunately, many project managers find themselves leading their teams with new goals and without any additional time or money.

Keeping Scope Consistent

Throughout all three of these examples, project managers must walk the line between enforcing the original scope of a plan and sending the entire project back to an earlier phase in the project cycle. Outside influences, such as competition or changes to cost structures, could warrant returning to the appraisal and presentation stages – essentially restarting the project before too many resources are wasted. However, in situations where internal resources threaten to distort project constraints, project managers should take a firm stand to defend their plans.

This post is part of the series: Working with Project Constraints

In this five-part series, we examine three classic project constraints encountered by project management professionals, along with ways to turn them into strategic advantages.

  1. Working with Project Constraints - The PM Triangle
  2. Project Constraints: Scope
  3. Project Constraints: Time
  4. Project Constraints: Cost
  5. Getting Real With Project Constraints