Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scope Creep

(another Walden required blog post)

I haven't been part of too many projects that suffered from scope creep--that sin, at least, I've mostly managed to avoid--but I do recall one series of Training Weekends for my employer that drifted noticeably outside their intended scope. We do a Training Weekend at the beginning of each academic semester as part of our initial training for new crisis hotline volunteers, and it typically introduces the new recruits to a wide range of hotline-related topics ranging from listening skills through suicide intervention.

We often had outside speakers from other organizations during our Training Weekends, too: presenters from the domestic violence organization, folks talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, people talking about what it was like to grow up gay in our rural, often conservative area. Our volunteers got a real charge out of these presentations, and we found that they learned a lot from them. So, as time went on, more and more organizations found out that we were offering training and started sending us their public speakers for presentations. Since we work closely with all of these agencies, we found it hard--even impossible--to say no.

Over time, the list grew, and near the end we had this grouping at our training: Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon, our county's mental health clinic, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, gay support, and a student support group. Out of our total 22 hours of instruction, we were spending 8 of them on outside groups. These outside presenters were often very busy, which meant that scheduling them was a nightmare--and forced us to throw our internal presentations in wherever there was a slot. Certainly not an ideal instructional sequencing plan! I remember finding that I spent more hours on scheduling and coordinating the outside speakers than on all other preparatory tasks combined.

Something needed to change, and we met as a training team to discuss it. We'd been seeing problems among our trainees for several semesters: they weren't strong enough at some of the basics, and they were often quite confused about the outside organizations that had come to present. After a lot of discussion, we concluded that the outside presentations were often perplexing to our new trainees, and that we needed to give them a more coherent training that focused on basics. We changed the schedule, and the new (now-current) Training Weekend was born.

Some things that were pretty important in the process: having an open, honest meeting with all the stakeholders (our staff, volunteers, and trainees). Greer (2010) talks about this kind of meeting being important, and it really was, since it helped us to see where the problem was starting. Portny et al (2009) talk about the value of formal change of scope documents, and we didn't have those--although they might have helped us to recognize this problem before it got so far out of hand, because each additional presenter would have required separate thought and approval. Our organization is typically quite relaxed about the scheduling of trainings, and while that's valuable, it also contributed to this problem.

We're asked to reflect on what we could have done to fix the problems if we had been in charge of the project. Well, I was in charge of the project. However, I was very new in my job, and much younger than the rest of the staff and most of the outside presenters. I don't think I was sufficiently confident in my authority to make major changes at first--I needed some "seasoning" time. It might have helped to have a slightly more formal delegation of responsibility and authority for the training program, since I think our leadership team was a bit unsure about who was in charge of what.

In the end, we cut out most of the outside speakers, reduced the scope of our training, and found that our trainees showed a marked improvement in their ability to do the basic tasks of a hotline worker. We attribute this change to our new practice of spending a lot of time on a fairly small set of skills and knowledge, which gives the group time to form, learn, and start to perform.


Greer, M. (2010). The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects! Baltimore Laureate Education, Inc. Retrieved from

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.