Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 17;   May 4, 2022:

Rational Scope Management


In project management, rational, responsible scope management helps us focus on the task at hand. But rational scope management lets us adapt our work to changes in external factors, and changes in our understanding of the problem.
A sturdy fence with a working gate

A sturdy fence with a working gate. A metaphor for rational scope management is a sturdy fence with multiple gates. To manage scope rationally, we want some flexibility, but flexibility within certain bounds. Metaphorically, the scope definition is the fence. The gates in the fence are the passages that enable users to redefine the defined scope. We want to be able to pass through the fence, but only when we meet certain conditions, and only under appropriate supervision. Image by Momental courtesy Pixabay.com.

Decades ago, if the definition of a project's scope was clear enough, it helped keep the project team more or less focused on the task at hand. From time to time, when we weren't watching closely enough, or when organizational politics intervened, a project's scope might stealthily "creep" to include some activity that wasn't intended from the outset. When that happened, we adapted. To keep it from happening again, we created project governance. Governance procedures began to require project scope statements that included elements such as Goals and Objectives, Requirements, Not-Requirements, Tasks, Deliverables, Resources, and even Change Procedures.

But Changes in the environment, or markets,
or customer expectations, or even our
understanding of the problem bring
about changes in scope
in today's rapidly changing environments, we rarely know enough at the outset about these elements to provide adequate control of scope. Projects are now so complicated that by the time we've defined a project's scope, we need to change the definition. Changes in the environment, or markets, or customer expectations, or even our understanding of the problem bring about changes in scope. We no longer strive to control scope; we now seek to manage it.

Augmenting project scope statements

Project governance processes are designed to deal with entire organizations. They must address projects of all kinds, in various states of development. The general problem of controlling the scope of such a heterogeneous project population requires a general solution. And that general solution has inherent difficulties in exploiting the particulars of each target project.

In part, the difficulty in managing scope traces to the attempt to deal with rapidly changing scope of every kind of project in every state of development using only general language. To address this difficulty, we must find ways to augment scope statements using specific knowledge about the projects themselves.

Ambiguity reduction by example

One approach to reducing the ambiguity of very general scope statements involves including examples of in-scope and not-in-scope.

In many cases, scope is not well-defined in the mathematical sense. That is, the definition of the term within scope for any given project might have more than one interpretation. For this reason, although devising a scope definition to control the scope of a project is necessary, it isn't sufficient. We must add to the definition explicit limiting examples of what is within scope and what is not, using what we know about the debates that led to the definition.

When we include examples, the differing interpretations of the project scope statement must take the examples into account. The examples of what is within scope — and examples of what is not within scope — then serve to limit the "ambiguity radius" of the rest of the scope statement.

Three guidelines for constructing limiting examples

Examples do serve to clarify the scope statement, but they also serve to limit political influence on scope. Some politically powerful individuals succeed in expanding scope by making out-of-scope promises on behalf of the organization. Including their likely promises in the list of out-of-scope examples can deter such promises. The deterrence effect is especially strong when the individuals involved have reviewed and approved the scope statement.

Here are three categories of examples of out-of-scope capabilities that can be included in scope statements.

Whatever people were disappointed about being excluded
Track the capabilities that were once proposed for inclusion in scope, but which were ultimately excluded. That will produce a list of items that are at greatest risk of being included in the project at some later stage.
Wherever scope has expanded in the past
A second class of high-risk capabilities includes those that were within scope of other projects, either in the past or underway, but which have been removed for one reason or another. Whatever forces were at work to have these capabilities included at first might still be active.
Past incidents of secret scope creep
Some scope expansion comes about as a result of actions taken by project team members on their own initiative. They don't consult team members or team leads in advance; they just perform the work privately. To limit this effect, include examples of "secret scope creep" that clearly illustrate the practice. If you're aware of initiatives that some have been advocating, use these as explicit examples of out-of-scope activity.

Last words

Small size is among the stronger arguments supporters of scope expansion use to advocate items for inclusion in scope. But the size of a scope expansion isn't determined by what's contemplated for inclusion in the present project. Rather, the size of a scope expansion is determined by the size of the ongoing commitment it implies, in every aspect of future support. For products or services, this can include everything from introduction to retirement. The scale of this commitment, not the scale of the current scope expansion, determines what is at stake when making scope expansion decisions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Capability Inversions and Workplace Abuse  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .

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