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

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