Speed Plays a Pivotal Role in a Project Management System

I received a book once with a cover so ugly that I didn’t read it until I was more or less forced. I had been too preoccupied with my other books, covers that had grand mountain scenery or close-up images of time-weathered faces. When I finally read it, though, I couldn’t put the book down. It now sits on the shelf where I put all of my favorites. Since then, I have always kept to the common phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Some projects are shown in a way that makes them look boring, unproductive, risky, or time-consuming, when, in fact, they produce rewarding results. On the other hand, some projects appears like they will be exciting and profitable when they are far from it. Whatever it is, judging the project by its “cover” isn’t always a good decision. A good project leader can see beyond the representation of a project and see it for its essence.

Today, project management systems are essentially what dictates how the project’s “cover” is drawn. The way it shows status reports, resources, team members, etc, is a large part of seeing what the project is about. An inaccurate display of the project’s components can cause managers to act on false information. It is often the tiniest faulty functions of the management system that causes the most frustration. By trying to be so simple, some systems provide senseless statistics based off of data that is both super-aggregated and / or missing.

Now, I’d like to hone in on a more specific example of project management, namely that of scope creep, in which I will explain how a project management system influences the decisions made in regards to scope creep.

In a forum recently, there was a comment electronic document management system that said, “Scope creep seems inevitable. Our attempt to gather our clients’ requirements early on often seems a futile effort. Scope creep distorts our carefully structured schedules, making project managers weep. How do we address them?” Although this individual did not state anything about a project management system, I would like to point out something in which, to me, raises a red flag: the words “carefully structured schedules.” I wonder exactly what is meant by “carefully.” Having a schedule is necessary, but having a strict hour-to-hour anticipated timeline is a mistake. Again, I don’t know what the author intended with the words, but I think it is safe to say that the structure of a project that works directly with clients is always going to change in some way. But is this scope creep?

When the author states that “scope creep… makes managers weep,” are the managers doing so because they are encountering actual problems? Or are they just perceiving the project to have problems based on how the it is represented in their management system? Say a manager had placed a high priority on meeting a project’s deadline. But, because the quality needed to be better first, the project was late. In some circumstances, the deadline would indeed trump the quality, but if the customer is specific to the quality standards, then some changes (or sacrifices / risks) need to be made. If the customer is not on an exact time constraint, a late project is a change that can be managed. There may be some grumbling, but the customer will be much happier having a quality product or service.

In the end, the manager who considers this circumstance to be scope creep, and just deems the project to have been a mediocre success, is not seeing the reality. The project was late merely because the scope changed – not creeped. The project manager let it creep because his or her perception of priority was misconstrued. A schedule is a process of dealing with change, not a way of eliminating it, and having creep is only a matter of losing control of change. If a manager plans in detail the whole course of a project then places a heavy weight to exactitude in fulfilling requirements, then he or she is indeed going to be left “weeping.”

Now, what does a project management system have to do with addressing scope creep? If the project management system basically paints the “cover” of the project, then it needs to adequately represent what is happening. With scope creep, schedules, and deadlines, the system must be particularly accurate. Taking too seriously a status-based view of tasks, projects, and even programs and portfolios can be very negative to the decision making process. If a team member has several tasks that are slightly behind, and the system automatically highlights them red in the red-yellow-green scale, a project manager may get the wrong idea of the real story. The manager might think the tasks are real problems and assume that the team member is being unproductive. In reality, the employee could have been working very effectively; perhaps some of the tasks had only been delayed for more important ones, or perhaps some future tasks had already been completed. There is a lot to take into account.

Reducing the status of a project to a smiley face, neutral face, or frowny face is an elementary school grading system, not the way a project management system should function. Such representations don’t encompass all the things like planning, resources, funding, and all the many unanticipated changes. Change may be creepy, but it doesn’t mean change is a creep.