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Scope Creep, the Killer of Projects Essay

One thing that will pick your pocket faster than anything is "scope creep," that insidious affliction that seems to infect so many projects. Things start of smoothly enough, with everybody getting along and following the plan, until the customer throws a monkey wrench into the works by asking, “How about…?” It shouldn't be a problem, right? I mean it’s just a little thing: an additional deliverable; a deadline that gets moved up a week or two; or the customer going off the agreed schedule. But before you know it, you are apologizing to your boss for losing a ton of money on a project.

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What’s broken doesn’t fix itself.

In too many cases the project manager waits too long to cry foul, or more appropriately “Time out,” to address a project's expanding scope. He or she sits in his cube cursing . I used to work for a man who had a disturbing and unnatural love for Gantt charts, with which he would festoon his office walls.  When his projects invariably fell apart, he would stare at them, tears of betrayal in his eyes, as if he had come home early to surprise them only to discover them French kissing a Venn diagram.

The customer isn’t always right but he's always the customer.

Visualize scope creep like this, suppose you walk into a McDonald's (not a paid endorsement) and you order a Big Mac (not a paid endorsement). The cashier tells you the price, but before you pay, you say, “Oh and I would like a large Coke (not a paid endorsement) with that.” That Coke changed the scope of work.  Most reasonable people would assume that adding a drink to the order would increase the price of the order, but in the real world of large commercial projects, that's not automatic. It's a discussion between other people. So to keep things on track the project manager reacts in one of two ways: 1.) the PM freaks out, silently curses the customer for cutting his profits down to nothing, but eventually acquiesces (while fantasying about the customer being torn apart by wild dogs). Or, 2.) the PM tells the customer that the request is out of scope and out of the question.

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Now imagine us back at McDonald's, adding fries to the order. Would the cashier scream, “You’re killing me, here! I can’t make money giving you every little thing you want!”? Would the counter clerk flatly refuse to add to our order, forcing us to gag down our Big Mac with no drink and no fries? Never. So here is an example of a fast food counter clerk having more business acumen than many project managers working in industry today. Naturally, I would expect any fast food clerk would immediately say, “Sure thing, that will be $X more, please.”

How can it be so easy for them and so difficult for professional managers to ask for more money and time when the customer has clearly asked for more deliverables? Moreover, it seems to me that if a contractor throws in something extra for which I have asked at no charge, I must assume he was over charging me in the first place. On the other hand, if a contractor flatly refuses my request, I will find someone who will do the job.

Never tell the customer no.

Most people have trouble saying no (this of course excludes 98 percent of the women I ask out).  Personally, I don’t have a problem telling people no, and in fact, I’m usually I’m not all that nice about it.  Do I want to come over and help you paint your house? No. I would hate that. Can I give you a ride to the airport at 5:00 a.m.? Bail you out of jail? Help roof your house? Lance a boil on your back? Do I want to eat goat? I can, but I’m not gonna. No, with a capital N.

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But I seldom tell a customer no. Instead when a customer asks if I can add six topics to a two-hour course and to shorten the course by 30 percent, I cheerfully say, “Let me go back and see what that does to the cost, quality, and timing of our project.” This usually tips them off that there will be a change in price. And I never lower a price unless there is some change in the scope that lowers my costs; otherwise, either I am a sap or I have been gouging the customer all along.

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