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Volume 12, Issue 29;   July 18, 2012: Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep

Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep

by

We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950

President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950. Six months later, in what was at the time an extremely controversial decision, Truman would replace MacArthur, because of MacArthur's public statements questioning Truman's policies vis-à-vis the Korean War. In an address to the nation, Truman explained his policies, and announced the replacement of Gen. MacArthur with Gen. Ridgway.

Difficult as it was for President Truman to manage the political effects of his decision, managers of modern organizations can have even more difficulty when they decide to terminate those who repeatedly foment scope creep from ground level. The problem is most vexing when the offenders exhibit otherwise stellar performance. To truly control this behavior, organizations must clearly explain to employees in advance what behaviors are problematic, why they are problematic, and what the consequences will be if employees violate organizational expectations. Photo courtesy the Truman Library.

On April 11, 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, U.S. President Harry Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur, replacing him as "Supreme Commander, Allied Powers; Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander-in-Chief, Far East; and Commanding General, U.S. Army, Far East." This historic act followed months of conflict between the General and the President, in which MacArthur repeatedly and publicly criticized Truman's policies. Worse, he had repeatedly and publicly offered his own analyses and alternative policies for comparison with Truman's. Some of his statements might even have influenced the North Koreans and the Chinese in formulating their own policies and strategies.

In effect, Gen. MacArthur's actions led to the wartime analog of the scope creep that is so familiar to project managers. But unlike many scope creep incidents, this scope creep originated not at the top, but somewhere below — at "ground level."

And something similar can happen in projects, when scope creep results from the behavior of team members who aren't high-level decision makers. Here are three examples.

Technology aficionados
Technology aficionados usually have technical roles and purely technical interests. They're more interested in the technical issues than they are in balancing the technical and the business agendas. When they encounter or generate an idea that is outside the scope of the effort, they urge it forward if they feel it's "the right thing." They act publicly, using meetings, email, or other communication channels to make their ideas part of the overall task. When they act without first consulting those responsible for managing organizational resources, they create "fires" that managers must extinguish.
Tactically oriented sales representatives
Tactically Some people act publicly, using
meetings, email, or other
communication channels
to make their ideas part
of the overall task
oriented sales reps focus on immediate sales opportunities to the detriment of a more strategic perspective. In some cases, they promise customers features or capabilities that the organization must then deliver, even if they weren't originally in scope.
Embedded consultants
Technology consultants are sometimes embedded in the organization on a short-term basis. They often have technology-specific knowledge and perspective, and some bear certifications in proprietary technologies. Sometimes, they acquire a bias in favor of their own areas of expertise. They lose objectivity. When that happens, their advice can conflict with the larger goals of the organization. That is, even though we invite technology gurus into our organizations for specific purposes, they can exert influence on the people they work with relative to their specializations, and beyond their charters. However innocent their motives might be, their advice can nevertheless lead to scope creep.

Were it not for the effects of organizational politics, a combination of training, orientation, and performance management could prevent or contain the effects of these mechanisms. But in organizations, as in war, once the unwelcome ideas float upward from ground level, politics can limit the ability of the organization to contain them. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Avoid Getting What You Want  Next Issue

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For more about scope creep, see "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; "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002; "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.

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