The term scope creep describes a gradual expansion of an effort's scope, often outside the awareness of the people involved. They do recognize that the effort has become more ambitious, but they usually express surprise and shock when they finally appreciate the size of the resource shortfall. Curiously, the word creep doesn't connote growth or expansion — it carries instead a sense of gradual change with no direction implied.
That raises several questions. When scope creeps, why does it expand much more often than it contracts? Why don't we ever wake up one morning shocked to find enormous budget surpluses resulting from the gradual ebbing of scope that took place outside our awareness? Why do we never finish projects under budget and early because of out-of-control scope ebbing?
Downscoping does happen, usually when we trim goals to get out of trouble. But downscoping is consciously planned. Scope creep is neither conscious nor planned. The real question is: Why do so many unplanned changes of scope lead to scope expansion instead of scope contraction?
Two classes of mechanisms might explain the dominance of expansion over contraction. First, when we make scope change decisions, we might systematically fail to investigate — or even consider — suggestions that contract scope. Second, when we make such decisions, we might systematically favor alternatives that expand scope.
Because cognitive biases often provide intriguing explanations of behavioral phenomena that seem unrelated to intent, here is Part I of a short catalog of relevant cognitive biases, emphasizing systematic biases inhibiting adoption or consideration of scope contraction strategies.
- Sunk Cost Effect
- To investors, the term sunk cost describes costs already incurred and not recoverable. The sunk cost effect [Staw 1976] is a bias that tends to make us unwilling to terminate an effort, because of the difficulty of accepting failure, even when continuing the effort will only lead to greater losses.
- Irrational Escalation
- Irrational escalationWhy don't we ever wake up in the
morning shocked to find enormous
budget surpluses resulting from
the gradual ebbing of scope
that took place outside
our awareness? bias can cause us to commit increasing levels of resources even when evidence strongly indicates that doing so is foolish. Unlike the Sunk Cost Effect, this bias can take hold even before resources have actually been expended. Mere commitment of resources is all that's required. For example, in bidding wars, the bidders eventually increase their bids well beyond the value of the items sought.
- Endowment Effect
- This bias affects how we value what we possess relative to what we don't. We tend to ascribe greater value to what we have now than we would be willing to pay to acquire it. In the business context, this bias might account for overvaluing work already performed, which could enhance both the sunk cost effect and irrational escalation. We might also overvalue the opportunity to continue work already underway, relative to any work we might do instead.
These three biases can contribute to failure to consider scope reduction alternatives. Next time, we'll examine biases that might make us more receptive to scope expansion. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- 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.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs,
because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects
- The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators
of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior
has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: I
- In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early
as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the
incidence of undetected issues?
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.