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Beware Of Scope Creep

January 4, 2011

All entities have a purpose—a reason to exist. To better understand and manage “things” we define them and classify them. It could be a job description, a contract or even a country.

I remember as a kid working with my father on a home improvement project. As I was about to attempt to hit a nail in with the back of a screwdriver my Dad said “Stop! You don’t use a screwdriver for that. Use the hammer.”

It certainly looked to me like the screwdriver would have done a perfectly adequate job of hitting in that nail. My father explained that each tool had a purpose, something for which it was designed  and for which it was best.

So what was wrong with using the screwdriver? Simple. It may have worked that one time. Maybe even a few more. But in the long run it was not a good bet to effectively hit in nails and, what’s more,  would likely cause damage to the screwdriver.

What we had here was a case of scope creep. I was extending the definition and function of the screwdriver beyond it’s original intent, beyond what it was “contracted to do.”

Can You Just Do…
Let’s say you hire me to mow your lawn. “Oh, while you’re here can you just change the light bulb in the shed?” Sure, why not. It’s a little thing. “Oh, I forgot. Can you also tighten the doorknob on the garage?”

What’s happening here is classic scope creep. The original scope was mowing lawns. Changing the light bulb in the shed? Not the same skillset, but still a small thing. What about tightening the doorknob? Hmmm, I need a screwdriver for that, don’t I?

Do It Once And You Own It
I have two problems here. The first is I am doing more work than you originally contracted.  How far can I let that go before I need to charge you for it? “Can you also change the light bulb in the garage?” you may ask.  Sure. What about the whole house?

Second, and less obvious, is you are making me expand the type of work you will now come to expect from me. The next time I mow your lawn you may expect that I can also change light bulbs and fix door knobs. Even if you agree to pay me for the additional work, is that really what I do well? Can I do it cost effectively? Is all my staff prepared to deliver those additional services?

The Law of Unintended Consequences
Scope creep, unchecked, can lead to many unintended consequences, not the least of which include:

  • cost overruns and angry customers;
  • overworked and/or misused employees;
  • failure to achieve contracted goals;
  • jeopardizing the organization as a whole.

In professional services, scope creep is a fact of life. It is something we need to manage and, if at all possible, avoid. Please join Kelly Craft, Fred McClimans and me  on Twitter for the #ProfServ chat tonight (and every other Thursday) at 10pm ET to discuss “Managing/Avoiding Scope Creep.

Also, continue the conversation on LinkedIn in the Professional Services Roundtable.

(Need a little help keeping up? Try TweetChat)

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