Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 36;   September 4, 2002: Some Causes of Scope Creep

Some Causes of Scope Creep

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.

Mort finally got to the punch line. "We just didn't anticipate the difficulties of the consolidation," he said, "and now it looks like we'll have to take a three-month hit."

US Space Shuttle Launch

A night launch of the Space Shuttle. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Just last quarter, Jack had okayed the consolidation of Marigold into Metronome, based on the promise of schedule savings from eliminating duplications and from better coordination. Now he sat stunned, wondering how they had reached such familiar territory so quickly.

By consolidating the two projects, Jack had unwittingly expanded their scope, because the combined team suddenly had a new task: consolidation. They became victims of a problem that afflicts many projects — scope creep.

To manage scope creep, begin by understanding its causes. Here are some of the more common sources of scope creep.

The unknown
Projects are ventures into unknown territory. Sometimes we underestimate the complexity of the problem we've tackled.
Perfectionism
We sometimes forget that good enough is good enough.
Placating conflict
We'll do almost anything to avoid dealing with conflict directly. We'll even expand project scope to satisfy all conflicting parties. When we placate conflict, we create a project that nobody can execute.
Acquisition
We sometimes forget
that good enough
is good enough
To secure resources, a failing project sometimes acquires another project on the basis of "natural fit" or "efficiencies." But consolidation isn't free, and the efficiencies are often illusory.
Career advancement
By commandeering more resources, the sponsors or leaders of a project can enhance their organizational power. Senior managers must learn to recognize these tactics, and approve scope expansions only on the basis of sound management principles.
Lies and self-deception
Sometimes we lie to others or deceive ourselves about what's really involved. We can do this to secure approval for the project, or to persuade ourselves or the implementing organization to agree to tackle it. Lying to others is unethical. When it occurs, the perpetrators must be held accountable. Deceiving oneself is tragic.
The union of all misunderstandings
If scope isn't clearly defined at the outset, misunderstandings result. When that happens, to preserve consensus that the project should continue, we might have to expand the project scope to include the union of all initial understandings. Making things painfully clear at the outset is worth the effort.
The Donald Crowhurst effect
Donald Crowhurst was a participant in the 1968 round the world single-handed sailing race sponsored by the London Sunday Times. As described in a 1970 book by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, his life pattern was to tackle ever-larger projects, concealing a pattern of failure. Like Donald Crowhurst, some projects expand their scope to avoid acknowledging failure. Failure or restart must be realistic options for any project manager.

Do you know which of your projects are afflicted with scope creep? How did they get there? Go to top Top  Next issue: Marking Grief  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald CrowhurstIf you're dealing with scope creep, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst is a captivating read.

For more about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "The Perils of Political Praise," Point Lookout for May 19, 2010; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy," Point Lookout for June 29, 2011; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Water bottlesAn Agenda for Agendas
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941Durable Agreements
People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why Scope Expands: I
Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install corrective optics during the Hubble Telescope's Service Mission 1How We Waste Time: I
Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share, but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An unfinished building, known as SzkieletorComing September 18: The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse. Available here and by RSS on September 18.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on September 25: Planning Disappointments
When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!