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Disastrous Creep: Proactively Managing Project Scope

For some project managers, scope creep is too vast and unwieldy to be managed. Like a natural disaster, it often mounts quietly and then catches its victims off guard. In his blog The Project Risk Coach, Harry Hall lays out the core concepts of scope management. This is a pop quiz on disaster prevention for the project manager.

The Basics of Scope Creep

The most defining characteristic of any project is that it is temporary, and therefore must have a fair share of built-in boundaries. Projects may be part of programs:

A program is “a group of related projects, subprograms, and program activities managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them separately.” The scope of a program is the sum of its related projects and program activities.

Every project is engineered toward the goal of creating a specific product, or product component – something quantifiable. That product must satisfy certain conditions or specifications, generally referred to as “requirements.” This term is not to be confused with “deliverables,” which are the unique value components of the completed project.

Officially, the project’s scope is its “products, services, and results.” The management of that scope involves enabling work processes that are necessary, while constraining those that are unnecessary. This requires a scope management plan that defines how scope will be controlled. Part of the scope management plan, the “scope baseline” includes things like a work breakdown structure (WBS) and must go through a formal change process to be altered. Scope change is usually catalyzed by a change in project cost or schedule.

A product may have its own formal scope separate from that of its project. When scope expands without the aforementioned change process / formal changes to constraints, this is called “scope creep.” Much like a mudslide or a rock fall along a highway, without adherence to a rigorous WBS and an accompanying WBS dictionary, there’s no real barrier preventing scope creep if it happens. A truly effective WBS gets down to Work Packages, which are the lowest level at which cost and duration can be estimated / managed. “Activities” are the discrete portions of work allotted for a specific period of time and must always focus on the project deliverables.

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About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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