Managing Scope Change

Scope change occurs when the agreed upon project goals or the approved approach to reach them is changed during the course of the project. Not all project scope changes are bad. For example – in an exploratory project – it is expected that the scope will change as the project plows on. The scope changes that project managers should manage closely are those that tend to be unexpected and hard to detect. Those will affect the schedule, budget and / or the project’s risk profile, and preparing for them is the best way to mitigate their effect.

What is Scope Change?

How to recognize scope change

Requests for scope change can be either explicit – coming from the project sponsor or the primary source of requirements, etc. or subtle – requests for incremental benefits coming for stakeholders at milestone reviews or other occasions. It is important to recognize scope change requests – even when they are not explicit. Failure to do so leads to a condition commonly referred at as “scope creep”. Scope creep occurs when changes fly under the project manager’s radar, and are called to her attention only after the fact – e.g. at the next review. A good project manager will be proactive and try to anticipate when and how scope changes might occur.

Here are some examples of scope change sources to watch for:

End users have a ‘special’ relationship with the development team. They often communicate requirements directly to the technical team, bypassing the project manager. Since “the client is always right”, members of the technical team often proceed with effecting the requested changes without first getting approval from the project manager. In this situation, the project manager should be proactive and inquire about recent client communications during meetings with the technical team.

“Gold plating”. This occurs when a developer elaborates on perceived customer needs and provides either a solution that is more complicated than necessary or functionality that the client does not need. The project manager should place additional emphasis on communicating with the members of the technical team and channel their energy to efficient realization of the current scope.

Changes to the source of project requirements. This happens when a new subject matter expert comes on board and has different opinions about what needs to be done on the project. The project manager should compare the new views with the original scope and identify the differences.

Dealing with scope change effectively requires clear communication channels between the PM, project team and project stakeholders. Furthermore, to prevent requests circumventing the project manager, ensure that project roles and responsibilities are clearly communicated.

Responding to Scope Change

Successfully weathering scope changes involves identifying them and analyzing them before they creep into the project. Once that is done, there are three strategies to responding to a scope change:

1. Accept the change and accommodate it by modifying the schedule and / or the budget.

2. Reject the change and recommend to the project sponsor to either push back on the change request author or to close/postpone the project.

3. Accept the change and increase the project risk. If the schedule and budget cannot be modified – utilize schedule compression techniques and other activities that will trade off maintaining the baseline for increased project risk. Note that this alternative is the least desirable one and should only be used when there are very stringent constraints on timeline and budget (such as contractual requirements that the client is not willing to waive). Increasing project risk is equivalent to setting the project up for failure in the future.


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Text Box: Tip: The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with scope change is that you do have an option. Scope change – while out of your control – can be dealt with in different ways. Managing scope change has to be a conscious choice – the project manager has to identify and assess all the available courses of action and consciously pick the best one based on available information.

Do not shy away from recommending project closure to the project sponsor when it is clearly the best course of action. If you do not do it now, you would be setting yourself and the rest of the project team up for failure later on.

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