Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Scope Creep: A Horror Story

This week brings another interesting assignment for my Project Management course. I am asked to reflect on an experience I had with scope creep and, well... see for yourself. 

Describe a project, either personal or professional, that experienced issues related to scope creep.  In a former career I managed a residential treatment program for adults with mental illnesses. I supervised the staff and residents of a ten-apartment facility, provided counseling, assisted with activities of daily living, and participated in inter-disciplinary planning and treatment for each resident. The need for mental health care far outpaced available resources, and the CEO continually scouted for new properties to acquire and convert to accommodate our long waiting list.

Such a property was found not far from my facility, and I was flattered when the CEO asked for my help in establishing the new facility. He explained that I would maintain my current duties and also be responsible for interviewing, hiring, and training the new staff. I would also supervise them until a manager was hired and trained. I had a good deal of experience and a solid team, and I was confident that I could take over the additional responsibilities without compromising either program.

What specific scope creep issues occurred?  Almost immediately my role at the new location changed from temporary manager to design consultant-construction site supervisor-accounting rep-professional cleaner-building superintendent. With each passing day I found myself making decisions I had neither the qualifications nor the desire to make.

What interior paint colors do you want? Sally can decide.
We need to order furniture. Let’s ask Sally to do it.
What equipment do we need to set up the new office? The new kitchen? The residents’ bedrooms? Have Sally develop a list. Give Sally the corporate credit card. Let’s have Sally be there to take delivery.
There are bats in the fireplace. My invoice hasn’t been paid. We found mold in the basement. The porch foundation didn’t pass inspection. Call Sally!

How did you or other stakeholders deal with those issues at the time?  My staff stepped up and took on extra responsibilities. The contractors became progressively less motivated, less patient, and less concerned with quality. The CEO went on a 14-day cruise with his wife, and I quit exercising, dusting, and cooking decent meals; I drank too much coffee and slept very little, always with a pager by my side.

Looking back on the experience now, had you been in the position of managing the project, what could you have done to better manage these issues and control the scope of the project? What I could have done better is to actually manage the project instead of scrambling to keep up with the scope creep. I lacked project management experience, and I was so focused on the overwhelming need for more formalized mental health support that it didn’t occur to me to refuse (or question) any of the tasks that were dumped on me.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have drafted some type of work breakdown structure (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton, & Kramer, 2008). I would have listed Level 1, 2, 3, etc., tasks and sub-tasks and identified and allocated resources for each. I would have outlined an appropriate chain-of-command and sought approval for each of these documents (Greer, 2010). And I would have said “no.”

“No” to hauling office furniture up a flight of stairs. “No” to manually seeding the acre lot using an old rusty spreader so we could save a few bucks. And absolutely, positively, “no” to checking to see if there really were bats in the fireplace. Yeah, there were. There sure were.

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.


  1. Wow. That is all I can really say. As you are aware, any good horror story needs bats and you certainly had them. Scope creep occurred because you never really created a document outlining what the scope of the project actually was. This was not really your fault as from the outset, you were misled by the CEO. He needed help and you figured that you could do that while maintaining your other work. What he really needed was a full time project manager who could set the budget, resources, scope, plan, WBS and make all the necessary decisions. This was a big project for someone who was admittedly inexperienced at project management. You also mentioned that you took on too many responsibilities. Stolovich (n.d.) recommends in addition to listing all your tasks and delegating lower priority ones to other people but to not try and be perfect. You had a great vision for the project but you never mentioned what the results were? Did you overcome the creep? Did you end up delegating more? Did you get rid of the bats?


    Stolovich, H. (n.d.). Monitoring projects [video]. Lecture presented for Laureate Education, Inc. Retrieved April 10, 2013 from

  2. Hi Sally,
    Your story rings so true to me. I once was rehired by a software company that had laid me off. When I was laid off I was a production coordinator and graphic designer. When they rehired me they need me to be the receptionist, office manager and graphic designer. I was working at a clothing store for minimum wage and I needed the job. So, I took it knowing that they were getting graphic design services for free. However, once I returned they added things to my plate often. I even repotted plants, stocked the refrigerator with drinks, did the Sam's club shopping, created their online shopping cart with pricing, pictures and descriptions while simultaneously answering phones, shipping products for customers, sorting and distributing incoming mail and following through on all accounts receivables. I think back and wonder what I was thinking, ah yes I needed a job.

    I was so wrapped up in needing a job I did not think that I should ask for more money because I did not want them to turn me down. I was reading a blog website this week and Foster (2011) interviewed freelancers about advice they could give to people looking to freelance. One thing that many of the contributors brought up was understanding your worth and asking for what you are worth (Foster, 2011). I think we often are so concerned about the welfare of others we dismiss what we need for our own welfare.

    I hope I can remember the advice from their website in the future. I did like working at that software company, I truly did but I think they took advantage of that fact to get me to take on more than I had to. I just felt like I did not have a choice, which too often I think employers know how to phrase things so employees feel they have no choice. What are your thoughts? Do you think employers know they ask to much but ask anyway hoping the employee will feel obligated?

    Talk to you soon,

    Foster, N. (2011, August 19). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

  3. Sally,
    As I read your description of "Scope Creep - A Horror Story", I doubt you knew what you were getting into when the CEO asked for your "help" in establishing the new facility. When you were informed you would be maintaining your current duties while also being responsible for interviewing, hiring, and training the new staff, and supervising them until a manager was hired and trained, did you raise a red flag or send out a Mayday signal? If not, you should have, shortly after becoming entrenched in the project.

    You truly went from temporary residential manager to full blown project manager. From your description, you more than doubled your work responsibilities for the life of this project. Having a great staff to delegate responsibilities to was wonderful, but for the life of the project they were also overwhelmed because they were doing their normal duties as well as additional duties on behalf of you.

    I have to wonder if your CEO put those extra responsibilities in writing, provided you with additional financial and people resources to complete the project in a timely manner, and compensated you financially for the extra hours you invested in this project. Was the staff compensated for the extra duties they assummed?

    Was the project supposed to be finished in a month, three months, or six months? Did this project achieve its desired outcomes on time and within budget?

    As you stated you did not know much about project management back then so you were not familiar with potential pitfalls leading to project failure, how to detect the pitfalls, and how to deal with them. Here are the pitfalls in our text which I see as being applicable to your project (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton, & Kramer; 2008, p. 106-108:
    * Not involving all key project stakeholders. If your CEO's initial intent was to limit the scope of your responsibilities to those previously discussed with you, then he should have organized a meeting of all key project stakeholders to discuss the project and areas of responsibilities.
    * Vague objectives. A statement of work (SOW)or contract between your company and the contractor should have included goals and objectives, deliverables, start and end dates, etc. Did you have an opportunity to review the SOW or contract?
    * Vague or nonexistent role and responsibility definitions. Obviously you did not have a clear distinction of duties with other members of the team, so as the project moved along, it was easier to dump the new duties on you. Carry office furniture up a flight of stairs, checking for bats, and seeding the lawn definitely went above and beyond the call of duty.
    * Incomplete and inaccurate schedules and resource needs. Identifying the activities needed to complete the project, timeline for tasks and their interdependencies, skills needed, and an estimate of person-hours are strategies for addressing this pitfall. As you suggested, a work breakdown structure would have been a great way to organize this project and the scope creep as it took over your professional and personal life.

    Thanks for providing a great example of scope creep. I assume in spite of the scope creep, you regard this project as successful.



    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.

  4. Thank goodness for your competent staff – a reflection on you! I think you did what many of us (usually X chromosomes) have done over the years – we want to help, we understand the need and we are flatter to be given the responsibility. And often we don’t think to ask for additional resources, we just make it happen some way. I made a “startling” discovery a few years ago when you are asked to take on additional responsibilities it’s expected that you will ask for additional pay – but if you don’t it will not be offered. As a boss from years ago was fond of saying, “don’t leave the money lying on the table.”

    I’m glad you survived and I hope you were rewarded, in any case it was a great learning experience.