Project Practitioners > The Balance Between Risk and Scope Creep

The Balance Between Risk and Scope Creep

By Margaret de Haan

Recently, I have put in a delicate situation with a client whose project is behind schedule, and bugs still exist in the deliverables’ functionality.  With this client making demands for additional work product deliverables that are not in the present Scope of Work the question is: do I allow the Scope creep for the purpose of showing progress towards the end goal while we work through the other issues, or do I lock down the Scope, and deal with a very angry client?

As Project Managers we all know that Scope Creep increases risk to the Project, that’s obvious.  Allowing deliverables to “creep in” that are not in the present Scope of work impacts time and cost to the deliverables, with no contracted agreement of payment for the additions.  This increases the risks to the project’s success, as time-frames are not defined, expectations are not written down and there is no recourse for anyone without some form of defined agreement.  So when the situation gets to a point where you need to buy some time, is it worth the risk?  Depending on how far behind you are and how angry the client is the answer may be “yes”.

The Project Managers job is to manage the triad, which in many cases means that you get to tell clients bad news.  They can’t have what they want in the way they want it, the change that they are requesting is going to add time and cost, and that the Project is behind schedule.  Not my favorite part of the job for sure.  So given the fact that I had an incredibly unhappy client (who was threatening to have us remove over $150K worth of equipment as we had not met our time-line), and the demand for us to start on items that were not part of the original Scope and had not been contracted, I made the conscious decision to let the Scope creep and deal with the additional risk and exposure to our company.  All of this with nothing but an original contract as far as written project documentation, and a client who was not at all interested in signing anything, with his only communication being either “get it done”, or “pull the equipment out, I’m replacing you and starting from scratch”. Yikes!

There was a bit of saving grace in this problem, in that a few of the items that the client wanted to add had been priced out in the original Scope and had been removed at the client request.  That at least told me that the client had some idea of the cost and that it wouldn’t be a total shock when presented to the client after delivery for payment.  So therefore, that was one component of the triad that was at least partially managed.  The second issue was time, which I tried to use in my favor to complete the outstanding items from the original Scope.  I set an expectation for the additional items for time with a healthy margin of error, and then threw all available resources at the problem from the original Scope and crossed my fingers.

At this point in a Project that was already too far south, trying to get any kind of “sign-off” on a formal document was pretty much impossible, so I guess you could say I cheated.  Using e-mail as my documentation for an audit trail, I diligently stayed on top of summarizing every conversation I had to define understanding as to what the requirements for the new functions actually were.  I hate to say that for the need to get as much as possible in writing, I avoided conversations as much as possible and relied on e-mail to communicate to try to sloppily manage expectations, define requirements and manage the Scope.  This is something that I don’t recommend.  However, given the fact that this particular Project had had so many breakdowns from the very beginning (PM change mid-stream, no documentation other than a Contract/Scope, resourcing issues, a difficult client) my focus at this point was “do no more harm” and I just tried to ride it out.

As I know I am not the only Project Manager that has been thrown into Project Hell, I would love to hear other attack strategies that have been used to dispel disaster.  Please post your comments as I know that in the coming months as Project Managers we are going to be forced to accomplish more while given less tools to work with.  Other strategies will be valuable information for all of us in the Project Management community.  Any additional tools that we can put in our arsenal for the future is always a great thing.

Related Links
When you're not sure of the right balance, a simple project flexibility matrix can add a lot of clarity to the discussion. Cinda Voegtli has suggestions for rescuing a difficult project that can be helpful in many situations. When it hits the fan, keeping the players updated on issue status can mean the difference between success and failure.

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