Monday, January 19, 2015

Scope Creep

"And while you're over there...."

Scope creep is an unfortunate fact of life.  It is a common enough word in business and project management, but not something I had run into as a concept before I got into the business of protecting my projects against it.

Scope creep happens when you start to do one thing, and it just changes a little to include one more thing.  And then another.  And another.  And eventually you realize that the project has cost more time, money and effort than you had ever wanted. It happens everywhere; a friend of mine was bankrupted when a high school teacher of mine asked for change after change after change, and then refused to pay for the changes.  John was a victim of scope creep, but that AP English teacher who bankrupted him was just a creep.



My job at the Corps has me dealing with the concept all the time.  The job that requires a ramp becomes a job that requires a ramp with a curb-cut, and pretty soon we are talking about whether we require asphalt at the junction. 

I was personally reintroduced to the concept this weekend.  I had sharpened my machete and clippers, with a specific task in front of me: I was cutting the freeze-burned angel's trumpet in the front yard, and the freeze-burned white fringe-tree (lovely aroma, but not pretty once it has frozen) in the backyard. 

I had a solid half hour of work ahead of me, and then I was done.  Mentally prepped, ready to go.

One-Two, One-two!  My vorpal blade went snicker snack!

I had even filled up a large garbage can with the angel's trumpet, and had left minimal mess behind. 

Attacked the fringe-tree with the same enthusiasm.  And I hear the awful words:

"While you're over there in the corner, if you could just clip that cat's paw."

Cat's paw is a scourge in New Orleans.  It NEVER gets cold enough to clear it out.  And it takes over everything.  I have seen its flowers at the top of a fifty-foot oak, and you can go to just about any neighborhood and find a house that is completely obscured by the damned plant.  Digging it out is impossible.  Poisoning it is not possible when you have critters and other plants you want to encourage.  So the only way to control it is to cut it back every month or so, and try to plant fast-growing plants that will stand a chance until the next episode.

Picture from a New Orleans blog
Unfortunately, it is also the most insinuating plant ever.  It wraps iron tentacles around chain-link with all of the strength of a python (but with decidedly fewer silly walks) and refuses to relinquish its perch except through death.  Even cats-paw that has been clipped requires huge effort to remove.  It simply does not go away.

So to 'clip that cat's paw' is the most egregious form of scope creep.  It was not an unreasonable request, and it needed to be done, and I WAS over there.  But I had not prepped myself for doing the extra task (which also ended up involving a pitched battle fencing with bougainvillea before the afternoon's activity was done).

More often, scope creep is less obvious.  And the worst possible kind of scope creep is when it is autogenic.  Bad enough to have a spouse or a boss creep you, but when the insult is self-induced, it is worse.  And almost impossible to see. My wife seldom sees that her own tasks multiply when she adds individual it-won't-take-but-a-minute elements to a project, and is continually frustrated with the results.

The biggest problem with scope creep is the morale hit.  Instead of having the satisfaction of a completed project, the victim of scope creep simply has more work piled on top, with no end in sight.  Every job becomes a combination of herculean and Sisyphean task. 

My family vacations when I was a kid were wonderful excursions to a SC beach near Beaufort.  To get there meant a five-hour car ride.  We knew it was five hours each way, and we prepared ourselves for that five hours.  We had books, we had songs, we had games that we would play, and eventually we would get Dad to play in the inevitable and oh-so-enjoyable game of "Don't make me turn this car around!"

But one time, there was a huge traffic snarl.  I don't remember whether it was an accident, or road construction, of what, but suddenly, a five-hour trip becomes a seven-and-a-half hour trip.  Unexpectedly. 

The resulting tears were epic. We kids quickly became bored, Dad was frustrated with the delay, Mom ran out of stuff to distract us with.  You could have written the script for the day for all of us with a single line:

WE DID NOT SIGN UP FOR THIS.

This is exactly what happens with scope creep.  Once the task has changed, all emotional preparation for the task at hand goes out the window, and all that is left is frustration, disappointment, and anger.  And maybe a paddled bottom or two.

So how do you fight scope creep?  My neighbor mentioned a friend of his, a boss-pleaser who just wants to make everyone happy.  Unfortunately, she has a boss who has a hard time staying within the scope of a task - Boss-lady is continually attracted to bright, shiny new pieces to add to the final product.  So instead of getting the satisfaction of the completed task, the worker bee is creating coping mechanisms.   And drinking a lot.

My neighbor's suggestion to her went something like this, and I really like the approach:

List the tasks
Get buy-in on the tasks
Recognize the addition of new items to the list
Evaluate (and re-evaluate) priority

Whether it is your own project (my dissertation died a scope creep death), a client's request, or a honey-do list, the priority re-evaluation of the additional task is really at the center of dealing with scope creep. 

Of course, it is just a LITTLE bit of cat's paw on the fence.....

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