Training Industry

Taming the Creep

  • Taming the Creep

Scope creep refers to expanding a project while it is in development or even deployment. It is the cumulative effect of adding “one small thing” to a project too many times. The increased scope impacts budget, schedule, and quality—and has derailed more than one project. In a post entitled Are We There, Yet?, I wrote on the importance of a clear vision as necessary condition to prevent an organizational change project from growing beyond bounds. As necessary as vision is, it is not sufficient to prevent scope creep.

A certain amount of scope creep is inevitable. Regardless of how thoroughly the needs assessment was carried out, there are always inherent uncertainties. As design progresses, additional requirements will be exposed. Some people even refer to this as scope refinement or scope discovery. The distinction is that these additional refinements are needed to make the project work. They are a necessary aspect of the original requirements and will strengthen the project, as opposed to new requirements that are simply nice add-ons. Distinguishing between them is a judgment call by leadership that should be driven by the end-goal of the project.

There is often pressure, internal or external, to increase projects beyond their original scope. It is tempting to believe that adding requirements to a project—whether it is change management or eLearning—increases its scope only by the work needed to implement the added component. However, new requirements need to be integrated with the rest of the project. Thus, adding a work component increases the interfaces with the existing components. Each interface has the potential for downstream consequences, which can be subtle and not immediately obvious or noticed. This is what Peter Senge calls “dynamic complexity” in his book The Fifth Discipline. Any modification increases the scope not just by the added work associated with the new requirement, but also by work needed to manage all of the interactions with other components of the project.

Taming the Creep

Consider a simple hypothetical example: a project with two major components,
A and B. As shown in the illustration, there are two interactions between A and B that need to be managed (specifically, effects of A on B and effects of B on A, which are illustrated by the light blue arrows). Intuitively it might seem that adding a single component, C, would only add the additional work that C requires. The simple illustration shows that it adds four new interactions (in red) that need to be fully understood and managed, adding significantly more complexity to the project than simply the work required to do C. In Large-Scale Projects as Complex Systems: Managing “Scope Creep”, there is more on dynamic complexity as well as other factors that often drive up the scope of a project.

Adding “one more thing” to an existing project is deceptive. It can add hidden dynamic complexity. Doing it more than once can increase the scope out of control and undermine a project.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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