Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

The dilemma
I was surprised that I had another meeting with Terry last Monday. Terry is the project manager on an effort to move the old shop floor batch reports to the Web. When I met with her last, I thought she was only four weeks away from finishing the project. It’s now been six weeks, and she is still four weeks away.

“Terry,” I began. “What’s going on? Your project is lasting much longer than anticipated, yet I don’t see or hear any indication that you are behind schedule.”

“There have been a number of scope changes that have required us to push the end date out,” Terry said. “However, you will be glad to know that I am invoking scope-change management. Each change is being approved by our sponsor, so we have been getting extra funding and extensions on our deadline.”

“That explains why no one is complaining,” I noted. “What types of change requests are you receiving?”

“They are mostly for additional features and functions, and small changes to our current deliverables,” she said. “That’s one reason why we have been able to accommodate most of them successfully. They don’t require a lot of work from our team.”

“What’s the future look like?” I asked. “Are you going to be able to complete the project in four weeks?”

“It’s not clear,” she replied a bit apprehensively. “Most of the shop floor supervisors have never had extensive Web experience. Now that they are getting more familiar with that environment, they are finding more and more features they want to incorporate.”

“Well, that’s not entirely good,” I said. “Projects are temporary endeavors to produce a set of deliverables. They need to come to an end at some point. I’m afraid you may be in a position where your project goes on and on, with minor changes bringing incremental and marginal business value.”

Terry agreed. “In fact, I think the team is starting to lose focus and energy. I have some concerns that we’re getting a little sloppy.”

“Let’s talk with your sponsor about bringing the project to a close,” I suggested. “This doesn’t mean they have no chance for additional changes. If there is business value in additional modifications, let’s consider them enhancements for the future.”

Mentor advice
On most projects, the project sponsor is focused on completing the original work within the agreed budget and deadline. In some cases, however, the sponsor is more lax and will start to approve major and minor scope-change requests on an ongoing basis.

This is not scope creep, since the project manager and sponsor are actively managing and approving the changes. However, in these cases, the project manager needs to come to a cutoff point, where the project will not accept any additional changes. This allows the team to focus on final testing and the ultimate implementation.

Terry’s project is a good one with which to make this point. She is managing scope well, but she and her sponsor are also introducing risk. There is a growing risk that this striving for the perfect solution will cause the team to get careless and unfocused, which could mean lower quality and more problems down the road.

At this point, the better approach is to work with the sponsor to freeze all changes. Suggestions for new requirements can still be considered, but they will be placed on a prioritized backlog list.

This list will be reviewed after the application goes live and is stable. These changes will then be seen as application enhancements. The support organization can work on them, or they could be incorporated into a new, Phase II project.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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