Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 39;   October 5, 2022: Downscoping Under Pressure: I

Downscoping Under Pressure: I


When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates.
The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013

The future site of 2 World Trade Center, New York City, as it appeared in 2013. It will replace the original 2 World Trade Center, known as the South Tower, destroyed in 2001 on 9/11. 1 World Trade Center was replaced by a new building that opened in November, 2014. The new 2 WTC has been completed to ground level, but further construction has been halted due to financial and legal issues.

In effect, the building hasn't only been downscoped, it has also been paused. Presumably the scope of the project will be reconsidered before construction resumes.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic by calibratedzeus, courtesy Wikipedia.

In the project context, downscoping is the process of redefining the goals of the project to a more restricted set of goals. Downscoping under pressure is downscoping that happens when there is a general sense that budget and/or schedule objectives are probably unachievable. In that situation, downscoping is proposed as a means of setting achievable goals. If those new goals remain out of reach even after downscoping, the hope is that downscoping will enable the project to miss the goals by a slimmer margin.

Things don't always work out as we hope. Downscoping can produce disappointing results for two classes of reasons. First, if the size or complexity of the effort isn't contributing to the problem, tweaking the effort's size or complexity probably won't help much, and might even exacerbate the problem. Second, assuming that size and complexity are part of the problem, the way we tweak size and complexity might miss the mark.

In this post and the next, I examine downscoping from the effectiveness perspective, beginning with the conditions that most affect its usefulness.

When downscoping is most likely

Downscoping Downscoping under pressure is
unfortunately vulnerable to
a number of anti-patterns
is often used in the hope that if we try to do less, we can reduce expenditures and we can complete the project earlier. It might actually work that way if we apply downscoping very early in the project. But downscoping under pressure is different.

Downscoping rarely happens early in the project, when hopes are high and people are excited about the project's prospects. When downscoping happens later in the project, it happens because there is a general consensus that budget and/or schedule objectives are unachievable. People feel the pressure, and they see downscoping as a way to relieve that pressure. But at that point, significant chunks of work have been completed. And that affects the way the project team makes decisions about downscoping.

Downscoping under pressure is unfortunately vulnerable to a number of antipatterns. In this post, I examine the effects of politics on downscoping effectiveness. In the next post I examine the effects of some cognitive biases.

The politics of downscoping

Political actors can use the downscoping process to focus discussion of goal elimination on the parts of the project their rivals favor. They do this to gain political advantage, and that's understandable. What is less benign is how these actions can conflict with important business objectives. That is, the downscoping can lead to project objectives that meet the needs of political actors better than they meet the needs of the organization.

That's where the trouble begins. For example, some projects include preparatory work that must be completed before certain subsequent projects can begin. Sometimes this is done to reduce the cost of testing, when the preparatory work affects the same components as the "main" work of the project. This preparatory work can be highest in priority to be eliminated in downscoping, when doing so doesn't affect nearer-term objectives. When the preparatory work is eliminated in downscoping, and when future projects require it, the consequences can be severely negative as they propagate into the future.

In an ironic twist, sometimes the projects most affected in the future are those favored by the political actor who directed the downscoping at the parts of the present project most favored by the actor's rival.

Preview of next time

In the next post, I examine the effects of some cognitive biases on the decision process associated with downscoping.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Downscoping Under Pressure: II  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

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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 Workplace Politics:

The Fram, Amundsen's shipBreaking the Rules
Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima)How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness
When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
A sturdy fence with a working gateRational 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.
New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Joseph Curry calls for rescue teams at Ground Zero three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacksJoint Leadership Teams: Risks
Some teams, business units, or enterprises are led not by individuals, but by joint leadership teams of two or more. They face special risks that arise from the organizations that host them, from the teams they lead, or from within the joint leadership team itself.

See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
The S.S. Eastland, in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1911And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post 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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
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!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.