Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about 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 practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Yesterday, I received a call from a manufacturing director who asked me to take a look at a project that she felt was taking much longer than expected. This morning I paid a visit to Sally, who was leading the project, and asked her to give me some background on the work.

She said that the work began simply: “The client requested a new report to show the manufacturing run rate during the previous three months. Then, as the group was finishing this task, the client decided that they wanted us to be able to estimate the rates over the next three months as well.”

“Did you note this as a scope change?” I asked.

“No,” Sally said. “We do not do projects in our group—just small enhancements. The original request should have taken us only 20 hours to complete. That’s the size of a typical enhancement we perform.”

“That’s fine for the initial request,” I replied. “But how about the work to project the numbers out over the next three months?”

Sally hesitated for a few seconds. “That was a more complex piece of work that was going to take a few weeks. We did not have all the data we needed, which required us to make some changes to capture the right information. We also had some trouble understanding how the new report should be calculated.”

I was starting to get the picture. “Okay, how much time have you spent on this?”

“It is hard to say,” Sally answered. “But we have had one or two people working this out for the last six weeks.”

No wonder the client is unhappy, I thought.

Mentor advice
Has this situation ever happened to you? You start off with a small request that seems like a piece of cake. Then, before you know it, you have spent weeks and hundreds of hours on it.

How does one end up in such straits?

It might be that you just underestimated the original request. In other cases, what began as a simple request gets more complicated when additional changes are added.

I do not expect Sally to manage a 20-hour request as a project. These are the types of requests that you can manage simply and plan in your head. At this point, however, the work has taken weeks and a couple hundred hours (and it is not over yet). Looking back, it’s easy to see that the work should definitely be run as a small project.

So, the question is, how should you manage work that starts off very small but ends up being much larger? The best advice I can give is to manage small requests loosely, but use the appropriate project management techniques when necessary.

In Sally’s case, when she received the major scope change, she should have gone back to the client and validated that they understood the impact. If she had talked to them and explained the consequences, the client could have made a decision as to whether the incremental value of the request was worth the extra time and effort.

This would have been a good use of informal scope-change management. When the work became much larger, Sally should also have initiated additional and more detailed communication, including weekly status updates to better manage expectations.

The bottom line is that it usually does not make sense to stop a small piece of work to go through a formal project-planning stage when the work begins to grow. However, there are certain project-management processes that do make sense to undertake, including scope-change management, issues management, and status reporting, to more closely control expectations.

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.