Scope Creepiness

Big Pond

The more complex a project objective is, the more each department and stakeholder will try to sneak their wish-list into the scope. It is important to ensure your organization has an aligned vision when it comes to any substantial project effort.  Large organizations often set out to tackle seemingly tangible problems, only to discover that each department or stakeholder has a different vision.  To be successful, projects must have clear goals and objectives from the beginning, and they must be agreed and understood by all stakeholders.  Cover your bases and document these goals and objectives in a project charter so that all stakeholders can review them and gain a common understanding of the problem.

But don’t stop at the project charter. It is also important to ensure that all team members have a clear understanding of the project goals.  In addition to setting ground rules, review the charter during a kickoff meeting at the beginning of the project.  During this meeting you should review the goals of the project and discuss how success will be defined.  It may even help to cite examples of issues the project is not going to cover. This should best equip your team for indentifying and escalating scope creep issues.

Alright, so your projects have charters and you’ve held kickoff meetings but your projects still seem to get derailed by last minute requests, shifting focus, and something I like to refer to as “Ghost Creep” (the kind that hides under a sheet and jumps out at the last minute).  So now what?

Every project manager needs to deal with these types of issues at some point in their project and as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.  Scope creep, and its scary twin “ghost creep,” are not always things that will announce themselves as such when they hop aboard.  Keep all members of the team on high-alert to be on the look-out for these items and remind your project team to keep their eye on the target and avoid becoming distracted by new ideas that arise mid-stream.

Can adjustments be made in-flight? Absolutely.  But only in order to ensure that your project delivers the best possible solution. Each adjustment must be evaluated to assess the overall impact to the project’s ability to achieve its primary goals on time, with the available resources.

If a new objective is being pushed by an external stakeholder or senior management, stand strong.  Or at the very least, stand clear. Ensure they understand the resulting impacts to the project’s success.  Personally, I like to refer back to the charter to “gently” remind everyone of the initially-agreed upon objectives.  In some cases, the stakeholder or sponsor might not realize that what they’re asking for is out-of- scope.  In other cases, external factors may necessitate the need for a change.  If that is the case, reevaluate your plans based upon the new scope and adjust.

So Little, how do you deal with these scope issues?  I’d imagine things can get a bit tricky when your “sponsors” are actually “investors,” and your “project” is really “build a new company.”

Little Pond

Well Big, in the world of the Little Pond, it’s far less about carving out a project charter and far more about powering through ambiguity and dealing with moving targets. No offense, but project charters are the luxury of the corporate environment. In the Little Pond, we are happy when we agree upon a company charter.

In the Little Pond resources are usually in flux.  Two moving pieces are funding (burn rate, cash in bank, fundraising in process) and resources (‘employees’ who may be cajoled to work for free in month 2, 7, and 9). A Little Pond CEO does not only need to worry about next week’s payroll, but he/she also needs to think about promises to current and future investors, expectations of stakeholders, and the morale of the guy writing code until 4 AM (anyone working with the guy in this picture?).  In the Little Pond, some things are not where you left them 16 hours ago.  And by “some” things, I mean important things.

The task of trying to run the entire company can easily get in the way of the focus on a specific project. Even the most disciplined project manager can drown when things like next month’s viability become a distraction. No budget sacred, no work stream secure. Sometimes, the Little Pond CEO must be realistic about what can be done with its resources, knowing the resource equation is itself dynamic.

In the Little Pond we call this problem ‘Trajectory Management.’  Trajectory Management is the calculation a CEO needs to make about what the company commits to, based on a level of funding and a planned state of market traction.  Since funding is correlated to the company’s goals on some levels, there is an inherent conflict. It is the most critical success/fail issue in the Little Pond and it is often given short shrift.  Over promise and the company will have disenfranchised investors. Under promise and you risk stakeholders’ interest in your project (read: funding). To be clear, there is a very critical step when you determine the ‘scope’ the company will pursue with the resources that appear to be available.  A bell should go off at this point but I am told it does not.

Accordingly, and I can’t stress this enough, the Little Pond executive team must tirelessly execute against the goals set in the Trajectory Management phase.  Make sure each day is spent working toward longer term goals accretive to value (e.g., generating traction, knocking down key business assumptions, hitting specific valuation milestones, etc.).  If this method is followed, the enterprise is worth more within 6 months. If not, circles in the Little Pond can still tire out the best athlete.

So beware of shiny objects!  No CEO is immune from the killer opportunity that just reared its head.  It is way too common of a distraction that can get in the way of the month’s critical project.  In the Little Pond, these opportunities look and feel exciting.  Unlike the Big Pond, an occasional magic bullet does exist.  The right sponsor, angel, or business connection really can change everything. So whaddaya do?

The answer: become a value task master. Spend 70 to 80 percent of the company time on value-added tasks that are tied to the goals that were ‘sold’ to stakeholders which are also tied to generating longer-term traction. Too vague for you?  If your answer as to why you’re doing something is that it ‘builds your brand’ or ‘this is an incredible opportunity’, you probably on the wrong side of the equation. Many emerging companies have this ratio inverted…it’s on the CEO to fix it! Any less than 70% spent on building value and the Little Pond CEO has jumped the proverbial shark.  Flip this around…if you are chasing a shiny object with more than 30% of staff time, you are probably neglecting important value builders. This time balance in the Little Pond is so challenging because it is the culmination of many other issues emerging companies face.

With that I will sign off.  Thanks for the topic, Big.  I am looking forward to our next jaunt where I think we should talk about setting targets and managing budgets.

  • Pretty impressive article. I just came across your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your opinions. Any way I'll be coming back and I hope you post again soon.

  • Doug Locke

    Thanks for the comment...please let us know if there is a topic of interest.

    Little Pond

  • Doug Locke

    Nicole, thanks for the question on talent and salaries. We have seen many CEOs balance out salary gaps with equity allocations. We prefer to have these contracts front-ended with a specified salary target and an equity conversion strategy for any differential created by actual payments to the employee.

    Hope this helps...

  • BC

    I've had a ring-side seat from the board level watching a Little Pond company nearly stop breathing due to misappropriation of time, resources and capital chasing shiny objects and focusing on branding instead of core product development and scope management. It's not enough to just spot this "creep" in a Little Pond company - taking action to assertively correct it is critical to survival. The misapplication of time and resources at this stage can literally be the difference between life or death of an emerging company, especially given how precious those resources are to acquire in Little Pond scenarios and how challenging proper management during the dynamic growth phase from drawing board to actual product/company. Being able to keep the operation breathing, balanced and focused on developing the product is the only way to truly deliver on the promise of a vision - so there's something there to even develop a brand around in the first place. Horse then Cart.

  • Nicole

    How can Little Pond'ers hire quality talent when their budgets are in flux and salaries cannot be guaranteed? Can they still attract competitive candidates while offering not so competitive salaries?

blog comments powered by Disqus