Analyzing Scope Creep

October 14, 2011 at 11:25 am 1 comment

I have spent my professional career as a health educator developing programs and delivering training and technical assistance in support of those programs. Over the years, I have learned that almost anything can happen on a project. Here is an example of what happened while working on one staff training. First the consultant who was supposed to write the curriculum disappeared. She didn’t return phone calls, show up for meetings, or respond to e-mails. I’m still not entirely sure what happened to her. In the end, I ended up having to write the curriculum. This is when people started adding content to the training.  I would hear things like “You can’t talk about B without talking about A.” and “this would be a good time to go over F.” And my favorite, “while we have everyone together we really should go over topic J (which, by the way, is completely unrelated to the subject of your training).” As a result, the training expanded from half a day to two days. Once the curriculum was put together, two things happened. People identified additional reviewers who were not on the original list of key reviewers, and guidelines changed which required going back and revising portions of the course. In any given project issues similar to these arise and they can cause delays or lead a project off course. These issues lead to scope creep and project managers must be prepared to manage them to keep a project on track (Portny et al., 2008).

Some issues, such as the disappearing consultant, are unexpected. In this instance, the task was reassigned to another team member familiar with the project. This allowed the project to continue to move forward with minimal delays because it was not necessary to bring me up to speed on the plan for the course. Other strategies might have included hiring a new consultant or identifying another staff person to take over the writing. This, however, might have caused delays due to the time needed to identify new people, bring them on board, and orient them to the project.

Other issues, such as people adding content to the course, are fairly typical of large projects that involve multiple stakeholders (Portny et. al., 2008). Once the project is underway, people begin to identify ways to expand it. Some of these additions are useful and necessary. Others represent new content or strategies that are “nice to have” but may not substantially improve the outcomes of the course. While others lead you completely away from the original objectives of the project. In the case of the staff training, I tried to meet the needs of the various stakeholders who provided input. This is what led to the course going from 4 hours to 16. It is important for the project manager to remain focused on the objectives of the course. If the intended plans start to alter the plan or move the project away from the agreed upon objectives, the project manager must communicate the implications of the changes to the stakeholders (Portny et. al., 2008). It might be necessary to negotiate a compromise that addresses the concerns of the stakeholders while keeping the project on track. In some cases, it is necessary for the project manager to say no – or at least, not at this time (Stolovich). Particularly when there are no resources to support new ideas and they are unrelated to the goals of the project.

In my case, I was not in a position to say no to some requests. The organization was spending resources to bring people together and needed to take the opportunity to address broader issues. It was necessary to make it work. It is important for project managers to be aware of broader issues in the environment that she does not control but may impact the project (Portny et. al, 2008). The change in guidelines during the development of the curriculum is another example of this. We knew the updates were coming but we had no idea to what extent they would impact the project. We prepared for this by adding time to the schedule to make revisions. A project manager might also talk to people knowledgeable about these other factors that may impact the project to gauge how the outcomes might impact her project. She could also address this in the design of the project by identifying and separating the portions of the project that might be impacted by environmental factors so the rest of the project can proceed.

Finally, there are some known factors that cause scope creep. Many times, these are related to the culture or processes of an organization (Portny et. al., 2008). For instance, I knew there was a tendency in my organization to spend a lot of time in review as projects neared completion. When this was added to the fact that reviewers often had multiple responsibilities, projects taking longer than anticipated in the review phase was a known risk. In the case of this project, we added more time to the schedule to account for this. A project manager might also try to phase the review process by having reviewers look at smaller pieces of the final product as they are produced which could shorten the over-all time at the end. Clear communication is also important (Greer, 2010). If reviewers are kept apprised of the progress of the project and reminded about when their input will be needed, they can plan their schedules to complete the reviews in a timely fashion.

Scope creep in an instructional design project is inevitable. Left unchecked, it can cause delays, take the project away from its intended objectives, and result in project failure. By being prepared for scope creep, the project manager can work to minimize its impact on the project. This means recognizing known risks and making contingency plans. Clear communication with stakeholders and team members can help keep the project focused on its goals and objectives and also help the team prepared for those unexpected issues that arise.


Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Stolovitch, H.  “Project Management Concerns: ‘Scope Creep’”. Walden University.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. dbgregory  |  October 16, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I enjoyed reading your blog this week and this experience appears to have many of the risk factors that we have discussed this week in our course resources. The risk that stood out to me was concerning the length of the SME review at the end of the project. I agree with you that a way to reduce the risk would be to have more milestone checkpoints. The checkpoints could have project sponsor approval as well as the SME review on the deliverable. This communication would have ensured that the focus remained on the learning objectives and that everyone was informed throughout the project life cycle. The amount of time at the end of the project would be reduced because revisions and editing would have occurred during all phases of the project.

    Great example and identification of risks that could be mitigated with better planning, scheduling, and communication from the project manager.



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