The Psychology and Politics of Project Scope Risk

In project after project, scope expands inexorably, despite our awareness of the phenomenon, and despite vast amounts of sage advice available. We propose that organizational politics in combination with psychological phenomena known as cognitive biases are at work. We introduce several biases and provide tactics to help project managers achieve effective scope management.

According to the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) — Fourth Edition, project scope is "The work that needs to be accomplished to deliver a product, service, or result with the specified features and functions."

The Psychology and Politics of Project Scope Risk

The view from a telescopic gun sight. In target shooting, focus on the target is essential. We must block out all else that might be in the field of view. So it is in scope management in projects. Focus on the objective helps to manage scope risk.

We now have abundant evidence of our inability to hold project scope fixed — or even approximately fixed. In project after project, scope seems to expand inexorably, despite our general awareness of the phenomenon, and despite the vast amount of sage advice available on the Web and elsewhere. How is this possible? Why are we so powerless to control project scope?

Most analyses of this problem attribute it to deficiencies in approach. That is, in any given case, the assertion is that the practitioners involved failed to employ practices that are known to effectively manage project scope. Although these deficiencies certainly account for some part of the problem, the issue is so widespread and appears with such regularity that it is difficult to imagine that project management practice deficiencies account for it all.

In this program we propose an alternative explanation based on a combination of organizational politics and a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive bias. Politics plays a role because some political actors know how to exploit cognitive biases to expand project scope in ways they favor. Further, we suggest that the problem is due in large part to the way human beings think; that scope expansion cannot be avoided using conventional techniques alone; and that effective project scope management must rely on directly addressing these patterns of thought so as to mitigate their effects.

For example, in a 1977 report, Kahneman and Tversky identify one particular cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, which afflicts planners [Kahneman 1977]. They discuss 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.

And 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."

We argue that dozens of these cognitive biases can lead to a tendency for scope to expand. For each cognitive bias, we propose tactics that can mitigate its effect on scope. And the cost of using these tactics is minimal. The mitigating tactics are very low cost, and simple to implement. They involve changes such as adjusting meeting attendance lists, modifying estimation procedures, or, as in the case of the planning fallacy, changing the emphasis of historical data.

Learning objectives

After some preliminaries introducing the concept of workplace politics, we explore how political actors can use a variety of cognitive biases. Learning objectives include:

  • Know what a cognitive bias is
  • Understand how particular cognitive biases affect scope management
  • Become familiar with the cognitive biases that are most likely to affect project scope management
  • Understand how to mitigate the effects of the cognitive biases that most directly affect scope

Program structure and content

This program provides participants with tools that can be invaluable in high risk contexts, when scope is more likely to expand spontaneously. It is also useful when dealing with political actors who exploit uncertainty to limit the ability of the project manager to manage project scope risk. In showing participants how political actors operate, we describe some tactics that are widely known, and many that are not so widely known.

We strongly encourage participants to ask about tactics they might have witnessed. To encourage these questions we create a "safe container" that enables participants to ask questions anonyoumsly if they wish. Time permitting, we also include in this program a series of small-group exercises designed to give participants a greater appreciation for the breadth of possible interpretations of political actions. These two elements of the program design make it much more interactive than typical presentations participants might have experienced.

Participants receive a copy of the Rick Brenner's slide set, which contains numerous links to further related information.

Learning model

When we learn most new skills, we intend to apply them in situations with low emotional content. But knowledge about how people work together is most needed in highly charged situations. That's why we use a learning model that goes beyond presentation and discussion — it includes in the mix simulation, role-play, metaphorical problems, and group processing. This gives participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations. And it's a lot more fun for everybody.

Target audience

Innovators and problem solvers at all levels, including managers of global operations, project sponsors, managers, business analysts, team leads, project managers, and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.


Kahneman 1977
Kahneman, D., and A. Tversky. "Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures," Technical Report PTR-1042-7746, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, June, 1977. Also Kahneman, D., and A. Tversky, "Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures," Management Science, 12, 313-327, (1979).

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