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Overwhelmed? Throttle Scope Creep

OverwhelmedHow many times during the week do you feel overwhelmed? How often do you feel like there are too many things going on at once and all of them are getting bigger and bigger?Happens pretty often, right?Lately, I feel like I’m stepping back more often and looking at everything I’m doing as a whole. I used to think it was procrastinating until I started reading about how much successful project managers and creatives plan. Sometimes their planning takes up 50% or more of the project. That’s often what’s required for a project to go smoothly and get to 100% complete.I’m finding all this planning is helping a ton when it comes to organizing projects and getting things done. Where I used to just start things on a whim and finish them when I get a spare moment, I now need to schedule precious time to fit in everything that needs to get done and not forget the important parts. Sitting down for a planning session gives a clarity to your projects overall and individually that you’ll never get unless you poke your head up from the trenches.Surprise!But (there is always a but) no matter how much you plan, things come up.You should add this new part to the project.Oh, it’s supposed to do this as well.Bob wants the this piece in the project too.It doesn’t matter how many people are involved in your projects, they have a natural tendency to get bigger. You might be working with clients with multiple stakeholders. Everyone would like a say in what’s going on. Everyone would like things to work their way. You might even be solo on a project and coming up with ideas all the time on how it could be better or awesome features to add.Bigger and biggerPart of the reason we feel overwhelmed is because the projects seem like their never going to end. And you’re right, they won’t. Not if you keep adding things. They keep growing and growing and growing. The finish line is constantly moving away from you. We’ve got to stop that finish line from running away from you. Stick it to the ground so that every day you are actually moving closer to it. And eventually stomp on its face and finish it once and for all.But how do you stop that line from constantly moving away from you?Define the scopeFinishing an ever-expanding project is like filling a bowl with water that gets bigger every time you put something into it. Soon it’s as big as your table, then a kids pool, then a lake. Every time you work on it, the work required to finish it gets bigger and bigger.Stop! First you need to define the scope.Scope is the set of rules around the size of a project. Scope defines how much work you need to do, how much time you have to do it and when the project is complete. You could think of it as the to-do list for a project. There are a certain number of items on that list. When you have ticked off all those items, the project is complete.   That sounds easy doesn’t it? Well it is, and if all projects went like that, we’d complete all of them on time, on budget while exceeding everyones expectations. A little monster called Scope Creep tends to foil our well-made plans.What is scope creep?So you have your to-do list for your project and you’re checking off things right, left and center. Awesome! You’ll be done in no time. Part way through, you come up with a few ideas for one part of the project and add a few items to the to-do list. You check with the client and they think a few more things should go on the list. Each time you check with the client, they add a few more. That finish line is creeping away from you.Scope creep is when the project slowly expands past the original boundaries set by you or the project managers. Small things get added piece by piece until you’re not dealing with a nice, neat little project anymore. It’s now turned into a mammoth project of epic proportions. Original estimates for time, budget and workload have gone out the window. Timelines start to conflict with other projects. You get stressed. People are unhappy with missed deadlines. All because of a few little pieces being added along the way.Crushing scope creepThe first step is to realize what’s going on. When you first begin your project, there should be a well-defined set of rules that lay out the timelines for the project, what’s being completed in each stage and how much work is going into the whole thing. If you can say in a short document that you’re doing this, this and this and nothing more, then you’ve got a good idea of the scope of the project.After you begin the project, pay special attention to what you’re working on and if it fits into the original specs for the project. If you’re adding things here and there that aren’t in the original layout, you’ve got scope creep on your hands. It’s an insidious creature that can sneak in to even the most well-managed projects. Pay attention to what you’re working ever day and you will spot it before it causes trouble.Once you’ve spotted the creeping scope you need to do something about it. The easiest way to stop it is to say no. In theory, it’s that simple. It’s never that simple in practice. There’s always a fantastic reason why a new feature has to be added or another section needs to be tacked on.There are a few things you can do at this point. One mentioned before was saying no. This is the simplest method but may not work in some circumstances. Other choices are adding it to a maybe list, adding it to a second phase of the project or swapping it for another feature.Saying NoIf you can just say no to the new idea or feature then do it. You’ve already laid out your project, you know what you need to do and you don’t need more things fuddling up your plans. Sometimes you can’t just say no. Maybe it’s your boss telling you that this new feature has to happen. Maybe it’s your own project and the new feature is better than one of the existing ones. Maybe it was a required piece to the whole project that someone forgot to mention. Saying no will preserve your sanity in the long run but you may need to also pull out one of the other tactics in some situations.The Maybe ListA Maybe List is a nice way to keep ideas around that aren’t part of the original scope. Keep working on your project as you originally defined it but keep a list of maybe’s around. If random “nice to have” features come up, add them to the maybe list. People tend to be happier if you take their idea into account even if it doesn’t necessarily mean its going to happen. When you reach the end of the project and have time and budget to implement more features, look to the maybe list. If you don’t have time to get to the list, it doesn’t matter. None of them were required anyways. When the client sees that the original project is on time and on budget, they won’t care about the Maybe List.The Second PhaseSometimes there are just too many items in the original project or things come up along the way that are required. For the project to be successful these things have to happen. You could add them to the original specifications but that moves your finish line away from you. Another option is adding a second phase. The original project is Phase 1. Complete that like it’s a standalone project, check with stakeholders that it’s complete, give yourself a pat on the back and then start planning the second phase like it’s a completely different project. Making each phase smaller will keep the project manageable and give everyone a warm fuzzy feeling when each phase is done. Having deadlines for each phase is a good way to see if the project is on track. Estimating one month of work is much easier than estimating a year of work.Swap a FeatureIf a new feature or idea is the most important thing since slided bread then maybe it actually does need to be in the project. Can you put it into a second phase? Budget or time constraints will sometimes prevent that. What you’re left with no is swapping out something that was originally in the plan. Take the old feature out, put the new feature in (to the project), double check the original timelines, and you’re off to the races. Make sure you don’t swap out something that was going to take a day and swap in something that is going to take 2 months. That doesn’t work well. Measure things in days or weeks. Timelines for swapped features have to be similar. 3 days for 3 days. 1 week for 1 week.Another way to think of it is in terms of money. If the part of project that you are swapping out was worth $1000 then you can swap in $1000 of another feature. If they differ greatly, your project timelines and budgets are going to be affected.Just say no to Scope CreepSo the next time you feel your scope creeping away on you, stop and focus on what’s happening and why. Take steps to prevent it. It will make your projects a whole lot more manageable.And your life a whole lot more sane.