Google "scope creep" and you get over 10.1 million hits. Mission creep gets 15.6 million. Feature creep also gets over 20.2 million. That's pretty good for a technical concept, even if it isn't quite "miley" territory (222 million). The concept is known widely enough that anyone with project involvement has probably had first-hand experience with scope creep.
If we know so much about scope creep, why haven't we eliminated it? One simple possible answer: Whatever techniques we're using probably aren't working. Maybe the explanation is that we're psychologically challenged — that is, we, as humans, have a limited ability to detect scope creep, or to acknowledge that it's happening. If that's the case, a reasonable place to search for mechanisms to explain its prevalence is the growing body of knowledge about cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is the tendency to make systematic errors of judgment based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. For example, a bias known as self-serving bias causes us to tend to attribute our successes to our own capabilities, and our failures to situational disorder.
Cognitive biases offer an enticing possible explanation for the prevalence of scope creep despite our awareness of it, because "erroneous intuitions resemble visual illusions in an important respect: the error remains compelling even when one is fully aware of its nature." [Kahneman 1977] [Kahneman 1979] Let's consider one example of how a cognitive bias can make scope creep more likely.
In their 1977 report, Kahneman and Tversky identify one particular cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, which afflicts planners. They The planning fallacy can lead to
scope creep because underestimates
of cost and schedule can lead
decision makers to feel that
they have time and resources
that don't actually existdiscuss two types of information used by planners. Singular information is specific to the case at hand; distributional information is drawn from similar past efforts. The planning fallacy is the tendency of planners to pay too little attention to distributional evidence and too much to singular evidence, even when the singular evidence is scanty or questionable. Failing to harvest lessons from the distributional evidence, which is inherently more diverse than singular evidence, the planners tend to underestimate cost and schedule.
But because the planning fallacy leads to underestimates of cost and schedule, it can also lead to scope creep. Underestimates can lead decision makers to feel that they have time and resources that don't actually exist: "If we can get the job done so easily, it won't hurt to append this piece or that."
Accuracy in cost and schedule estimates thus deters scope creep. We can enhance the accuracy of estimates by basing them not on singular data alone, but instead on historical data regarding organizational performance for efforts of similar kind and scale. And we can require planners who elect not to exploit distributional evidence in developing their estimates to explain why they made that choice.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Toxic Projects
- A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic
projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage
the organization — sometimes irreparably.
- Down in the Weeds: II
- To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of
detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing
with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.
- Ego Depletion and Priority Setting
- Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy
for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: I
- If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance
can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic,
and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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