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.


  1. Hello Hollis....

    Troy, in her video this week, really emphasized what scheduling could do to a project (scope creep).

    Communication is very critical.
    Take care,JR

  2. Hollis,

    Greer has a nice summary of how to handle scope change and even though you didn't have a formal process in place it sounds like you got to the point where you ended up doing a number of the right things including:

    Pinpointing the exact change - an increase in the number of outside speakers.

    Analyzing the impact - in this case, time for providing basic skills training was being reduced or otherwise negatively effected by the increase in speakers.

    Discussing the impact with the project team - for your issue this occurred over time.

    Updating the project scope statement and overall plan - certainly accomplished when you scaled back the speakers and placed the emphasis on skills training.

    (Greer, 2010, p36)

    It sounds like you all recognized the problem and did the right thing intuitively - imagine the results you can achieve if you add PM and ADDIE into the mix!


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

  3. Mark--nice analysis!

    The thing that made it harder was that the gradual nature of the problem made it much harder to do Greer's original step: pinpoint the problem. It's like the old frog-in-a-pot-of-boiling-water chestnut: if it had happened all at once, we would have seen it coming. As it was, we found ourselves gradually becoming aware of a functional problem--our trainees weren't seeming competent enough--without a clear cause. The phrase "scope *creep*" feels especially apt here, since it snuck under our collective radar.

    In a sense, ADDIE is relevant here because this process mirrors some important aspects of the Analysis phase. In both cases, we have a problem in terms of something performance-based (ideally), and we need to figure out what causes it before we can appropriately target an intervention.


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

  4. Hollis,

    I certainly agree with you, involving everyone in the process eliminates any misunderstandings in Project Scope. (Greer, 2010)

    Limiting the number of presenters, again symptomatic of well-intentioned "The Road to xxxx is Paved with Good Intentions," especially as your time lines, and theirs, were always skewed is really hard when so many people have so much to offer.

    Your comment about seasoning and confidence was very appropriate, for both you and your design team, because as was mentioned in the Portny book, choosing the right participants for the project can affect the time line if there is a high degree of on-the-job training. (Portny, 2008)

    It was to the benefit of your organization that you all communicate well. Michael Greer would agree that when all the stakeholders communicate there are fewer misunderstandings. (Greer, 2010)

    Side note: I understand that when a disaster occurs there are many diverse groups trying to help... Red Cross, local churches, etc., are on every street corner and sometimes people take advantage and go from group to group getting help. I think that I read that the solution to it is that one person or group is designated the, as it were, Project Manager, and the resources, as well as accountability, are better managed and more people are served. Yet another example of why successful analysis/evaluation at the end of a project is so important.

    I enjoyed your posts, as well as the comments of the others.



    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.

  5. Lisa,

    Definitely! There's actually a whole field of study related to what they call the Incident Command System. The ICS is exactly what you described: a systematic way of assessing the situation and marshaling available resources in helpful ways. I teach Disaster Mental Health, which is a professional certification for counselors who want to help in disasters. I've also worked under several incident commands--as a radio operator. I've also got a bunch of first responder training, and medical care folks often function under that kind of command.

    I think the other virtue of a project manager in a disaster is this: it's reassuring. Disasters are about problems that exceed the normal capacity for handling things, and a project manager can project an aura of control that's really valuable for people who are scared and struggling.

  6. Hollis,

    OK, you've inspired me to join my city's CERT program! I live in a Central/Southern California county that's 3/4 mountains and one of the concerns is that if/when landline/satellite communication go out certain communities won't have help. I think these groups are exploring the old time-honored short wave radio systems powered by generators... is this like what you were mentioning?


  7. Hi Lisa!

    That's fantastic that you're going to join up! Yes, that's similar to what we were using. I'm (still) a licensed ham (amateur) radio operator, and the Red Cross relied very heavily on the network of hams because we had small, portable point-to-point radios that didn't use a ton of power and that needed no additional infrastructure besides power. For the VHF bands, as long as you had line of sight, you had the ability to communicate--and for some of the other bands, that wasn't even a requirement.

    I've always kept up my license since the 1998 disaster, because I remember how incredibly helpful it was to have a communication method that didn't require towers. Also, a lot of ham clubs have repeaters that patch into the phone system, meaning you can use your radio to talk to someone else's antenna and then call through the regular phone system. It's not private, but it was invaluable during the disaster.

  8. Hi Hollis,
    It's inspiring to hear about the time and effort that goes into helping people! Nice work!

    For being so young and new at your job, it's interesting that you still identified the scope creep, and had the initiative to bring everyone together to talk about it.

    Mark's comment includes some great analysis! You did a number of things right intuatively, but just imagine what kind of quality product you could develop today, knowing what you do about instructional design and project management.

    Equally important to the changes you made to the training is that you assessed the participants and noticed a "marked improvement". Assessment is often forgotten about when companies do internal training. I'm curious how this assessment was done. There must have been set objectives for the training, so were the improvements measured through a performanced based assessment, or a level 2 content based assessment?
    Thanks for sharing,

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