Scope creep is an insidious phenomenon that occurs when a project’s boundaries expand beyond its initial definition, leading to a cascade of problems, including increased workloads, disrupted schedules, and inflated budgets. But what causes this scope creep? One of the primary issues here is an undue emphasis on deliverables, the tangible products or outputs of a project.

Understanding scope creep in project management

Project teams invest considerable time and effort in meticulously defining the scope of their projects. This process serves as the cornerstone for resource allocation, budget setting, and timeline establishment. However, the term ‘scope’ itself can be a source of confusion and misalignment within project teams. You see, ‘scope’ can be interpreted in two distinct ways: it can refer to the specific deliverables that need to be produced, or it can encompass the broader outcomes that the project aims to achieve.

In practice, teams often default to focusing on deliverables. It’s easy to see why. Deliverables are concrete and quantifiable. They provide a sense of immediate progress and accomplishment when completed. Yet, this deliverable-focused approach comes with its own set of drawbacks.

Pitfalls of a deliverable-focused approach

The major pitfall of a deliverable-focused approach is that it can lead to tunnel vision. Teams become overly fixated on the tactical aspects of the project, often at the expense of the strategic end goals. They may find themselves trapped in a cycle of continually expanding project activities, adding more features, and adjusting priorities. This relentless pursuit of deliverables can derail the original project plan and cause disruptions not only in schedules and budgets but also in the team’s focus.

Impact on schedules and investments

This tunnel vision towards deliverables frequently results in scope creep. Scope creep manifests itself as a multiplying of features, a blurring of priorities, and the subsequent erosion of schedules and budgets. This issue is far from being an isolated incident; it’s a pervasive problem that affects many organizations. Lengthy debates over project tactics can often overshadow the larger outcomes the project is meant to achieve, leading to inefficient resource utilization and wasted time.

Shifting the focus to outcomes

To address the challenges posed by a deliverable-focused approach and the ensuing scope creep, a paradigm shift is in order. Project leaders need to guide their teams towards a different perspective—one that prioritizes the ‘why’ of the project over the ‘what.’ In other words, it’s time to shift the focus from deliverables to outcomes.

Realignment strategies for teams

This shift in focus requires leaders to emphasize the importance of understanding and working towards the broader outcomes that the project is intended to achieve. Realignment strategies can play a pivotal role in this transformation. One effective strategy is to ensure that the entire team, from project managers to individual contributors, is aligned with the overarching goals of the project.

This alignment can be achieved through clear communication of the project’s mission and objectives. When everyone understands the ‘why’ behind the project, it becomes easier to make decisions that are in sync with the project’s intended outcomes. Regular team meetings and updates that emphasize the project’s goals can help maintain this alignment throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Benefits of an outcome-oriented approach

Shifting towards an outcome-oriented approach offers several significant benefits. First and foremost, it helps in maintaining clarity in project objectives. When the focus is on outcomes, it becomes less likely that the team will get bogged down in the minutiae of individual deliverables that may not significantly contribute to the overall goals.

Moreover, an outcome-oriented approach ensures that every project activity and decision is aligned with the desired results. This alignment helps in eliminating unnecessary work and streamlining processes, which can ultimately lead to improved efficiency and cost savings.

An outcome-oriented approach ensures that every project activity and decision is aligned with the desired results.

By emphasizing outcomes, project teams are better positioned to adapt to changing circumstances. In a rapidly evolving business landscape, the ability to pivot and reallocate resources towards the most critical objectives is invaluable. An outcome-oriented approach provides the flexibility needed to navigate unexpected challenges while staying on course to achieve the project’s ultimate goals.

Widespread challenges

The challenge of being overly deliverable-focused is not isolated to a few sporadic cases but is a widespread issue that permeates many organizations. Leaders and teams often find themselves immersed in lengthy debates over various project tactics, losing sight of the overarching outcomes they are striving to achieve. This misalignment not only undermines the project’s success but also results in inefficient utilization of resources and valuable time.

A paradigm shift

Project managers and teams should heed the call to shift their focus from deliverables to outcomes. By doing so, they can effectively combat scope creep, maintain alignment with the project’s true objectives, and enhance overall project management effectiveness. It’s time to prioritize the ‘why’ over the ‘what’ and reap the rewards of a more outcome-oriented approach in the dynamic world of project management.

Tim Boesen

January 16, 2024

4 Min read