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

The dilemma
Sally had a small team working on a manufacturing system enhancement that had turned into a much larger project. When we spoke last, she was trying to implement some structured project management processes to ensure that this effort did not become any larger.

“I have some good news today.” Sally began with a smile. “We were able to formally gain agreement on the business requirements for this work. I think the problems we encountered with scope changing are all in the past.”

“That’s good news.” I replied. “As we agreed before, you can’t manage scope effectively if you haven’t defined the scope to begin with.”

Sally had been able to gain agreement on a minimum set of requirements from the manufacturing client. During the discussions, however, Sally uncovered other features that the customer wanted. These had not been included in favor of getting the initial work completed and implemented.

“When does it look like the work will be completed?” I asked.

“We have some more good news on that front.” Sally said excitedly. “We initially told the client it would take an additional six weeks to complete the work. But, when we got into the initial programming, we discovered that some of the work was not nearly as complex as we first feared. We have about two weeks less work than we thought.”

“Great news!” I agreed. “I’m sure your client will be happy to implement this work earlier.”

“Well, that is one option.” Sally countered. “However, I know that there are a number of additional features that they wanted to implement. We plan to add some of these as well. I think the client will be very happy when they see the extra features and we still deliver within the deadline they already agreed to.”

On the surface, this sounded great, but I knew from experience and training that this was not the right way to go. Sally was about to get into a case of “goldplating,” or delivering more than the client requested.

Mentor advice
While you should always strive to carefully set and then meet the client’s expectations, it may be best to underpromise but overdeliver. On the surface, this looks to be exactly what Sally is doing. Won’t the client be happy because she is able to deliver more than they’ve requested?

Even though it might seem that this is a good idea, it actually isn’t. Goldplating is wrong for two reasons.

First, the primary focus of the project should be to make sure that you deliver what the client wants, on time and within budget. By adding more work, you increase the risk that the project will miss its deadline. If Sally’s team blows the six-week deadline date, no one will want to hear that the date was missed because of additional work that the client did not ask for.

Second, Sally is taking it upon herself to make a business decision about what is most valuable to the client. The initial project scope may not have included the additional features for good reasons. The features may, in fact, have had marginal value to the client.

Also, the client may actually find more value in having the solution implemented two weeks earlier. The point is that this is a client decision and not one that the IT project manager should make.

Bottom line
I am a firm believer in meeting your commitments, and underpromising and overdelivering. However, the overdeliver should mean delivering the project earlier or for less money than was anticipated. It shouldn’t include delivering more than the client asked for. If you can deliver earlier or for less money, let the client make the decision on what to do with the good fortune.

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.