Minimizing scope creep in 5 easy steps

Let’s say you work for a college. Let's say you have an idea to build a website for parents of current students. (I’m not saying it’s a good or bad idea. It’s just an example.) The site would provide all of the information that parents want to know about your college. You call a meeting of all of the key stakeholders, including representatives from Marketing, Student Affairs, and Enrollment Management. At the meeting, you present your idea and everyone gets very excited.

The Enrollment Management representative thinks prospective parents would be interested in it as well, and wants to add functionality that allows parents of admitted students to connect with other parents. The Student Affairs representative wants to add functionality that allows parents to order care packages for their students at finals time. The Marketing person believes that Alumni and Development should be included as well, because they will be interested in connecting with parents as potential donors. At this point, you put your head in your hands, recognizing that your idea will never actually be implemented.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’ve just fallen victim to scope creep.

Scope creep is a common occurrence in many organizations, but particularly in highly matrixed organizations. It happens because in matrixes organizations, different people are working toward different objectives. Enrollment Management is trying to achieve new student goals. Student Affairs is trying to retain students and keep them happy and healthy. Alumni and Development is trying to build alumni affinity and raise money. Marketing is trying to help lots of different groups achieve lots of different objectives.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, regardless of where you sit in an organization, as a project leader there are five steps you can take to minimize scope creep, as follows:

1. Keep the number of team members as small as possible.

Because areas of responsibility can be unclear in a decentralized organization, there is often a tendency to include more people, vs. fewer. Keep the size of the core team as small as you can. You can always get input from others along the way as necessary.

2. Get agreement to the objectives.

Scope creep often happens because the team isn’t in agreement about the goal. Make it clear upfront, in writing, what you see as the objectives and strategies, and present it to the group for discussion. Do not move forward until the full team is in agreement with the proposed objectives.

3. Write a project brief.

Once you have agreement to the objectives, write a full project brief and distribute it to the team. The project brief should include the objectives, strategies, timeline, responsibilities, budget, and key issues. Having the brief in writing will allow you to say, “Great idea, but it’s outside the scope we agreed to, and will endanger the timeline” when new ideas come up.

4. Clearly define the roles of each team member.

Even within a small team, you as the project leader don’t necessarily need (or want) each team member to weigh in equally on every aspect of the project. Engaging the team in a  RACI Matrix exercise will help each team member understand their role on the team ­– what they’ll be responsible for, what they’ll be consulted on, and what they’ll be informed of after the fact. It will also ensure that everyone understands who the final decision-maker is for each important project element.

5. Break the project into phases.

In the above example, adding prospective parents to the target audience and allowing parents to order care packages weren’t bad ideas. They just added complexity to the initial project. When stakeholders have good ideas that are outside the scope, suggest breaking the project into phases. This allows you to more the project forward and accomplish the original objectives within the desired timeframe.

Those are my five proven steps to minimizing scope creep. Are there any others that you’ve found helpful? I’d be interested in hearing them in the comments below.