Managing scope creep is not a zero-sum game


Is your relationship with your dog better than it is with your supplier?

Dogs epitomize loyalty. They are social animals, as are people, and to them – relationships are important. Relationships are built on trust, but they are sustained with loyalty. And relationships are critical to having a successful product, process, or company.

We’ve never had a project where we didn’t have to address scope creep. As a supplier, we prioritize loyalty and relationships above incremental profitability. Project management techniques for addressing scope creep do us a disservice by starting with the presumption that resources have to be managed in a zero-sum game (every new feature must displace an existing feature). In this post we will talk about the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with our customer as part of addressing scope creep. It is not a zero-sum game.

The zero-sum game false premise

Old-school project managers talk about the “magic triangle” as if it were a law of physics. They contend that for a given project, you can either fix scope, cost, or time. Today’s more enlightened project managers add the dimension of quality, or explicitly call out that quality is part of scope in the original triangle. A simple idea, easy to communicate, and tactically effective.

The problem isn’t that the triangle is bad, the problem is that it is central to discussions of approving and incorporating changes in the requirements or scope for a software project. Drawing the triangle on the white board closes relationship opportunities as effectively as an off-color joke in a job interview.
When we can not modify the budget or delivery schedule (or quality!) for a given scope of committed requirements for a project, we can use the triangle imagery to help drive decisions within the meeting. However, our approach to handling requests for changes and additions to the requirements also impacts our relationship with our client. The people we interact with on a daily basis for projects usually can not or will not consider making changes to the area of the triangle. But the right relationships can either convince them to do so, or to ask that it be done.

Loyalty sustains business relationships

David Maister has a good post responding to a reader’s question about how to handle scope creep. David asks us how we would respond if the scope-creeping request had been made by a family member or close friend. Most of us would answer that we would just do it, at least within reason. Why? Because we are optimizing on our relationships first, and time management second.

As long as we are bidding and meeting our goals for the profitability of a project, we should be willing to consider investing time or money (our dime) on the relationship. We spend money on marketing and pursuits and sales cycles. Think of this as the same thing. Of course there is a limit to how much we should be willing to invest – 1 week over the course of a 6 month project is not unreasonable.

When requests are too large (they blow our “relationship marketing budget”), we have to bring in the triangle. When too many requests come in and we use up our budget, we again have to employ the techniques of presenting the clients with tradeoffs and decisions. But until we reach that point, we should absorb the (controlled) costs as an investment in customer loyalty.

We can present the conversation in a number of different ways – depending on the individuals with whom we are working. But the ideas we want to get across are:

This is important to you. We’re willing to invest the time to make it happen without cutting something else, because our relationship is important to us.

Profitability sustains businesses

We can’t do “too much” of this. In addition to not wanting to be “walked on” or feeling professionaly abused, we also want to meet the financial goals of the project. That’s why we establish a budget up front. We’ll keep that budget a secret, to make sure the customer doesn’t just use it up. If we share the data, we run the risk of automatically getting enough scope creep to fill up our “investment bucket.” Make sure the ROI for the project will still be met – that drives the hard line in the sand.

Reapplying David’s analogy, we would eventually “cut off” our deadbeat brother. With our budgeting in advance, we know exactly where we have to cutoff the “free” scope creep.


The most important part of a customer relationship is the relationship. Look to scope creep as an opportunity to improve the relationship, without tearing the financial envelope for the project.

Once we’ve used up our loyalty budget, we can then apply the techniques taught in project management classes. They are good techniques, but they aren’t the most important thing to focus on.

4 thoughts on “Managing scope creep is not a zero-sum game

  1. Finally an article on scope creep that speaks reality. In my opinion it is irresponsible of a project manager or account manager to handle it any other way. Thank you!

  2. Fair comment, I like the phrase “Optimising the relationship before time management.”

    Isn’t it also true that we work harder/better for people we like and if you have a good relationship with your client throughout your team you may well deliver higher quality with better time efficiency as a result of you choosing to stretch out.

  3. Hey Craig, thanks for reading and commenting!

    Definitely. People will put more effort into anything that is associated with a positive relationship than a negative one.

    One of the best consultants I’ve ever worked with is a guy who is just unbelievably good at establishing relationships with other team members. Phenomenal peer-level interactions. I saw him keep a multi-million dollar account alive (to eventually sell more millions) by himself. Onsite every week, keeping those relationships going. It helped that he was good at what he does, but it was the relationships that made it happen. I’m certain of that.

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