Sunday, April 6, 2008

April 7, 2008 – Scope Creep in Tent City

The city of Ontario, California had a problem: a large number of homeless people. To address this, the council decided to create “Tent City” using the land around the airport. They supplied tents, water and toilets. Government agencies supplied other goods and services. Everyone felt good about themselves and life was looking grand.

Unfortunately, this solution just created a bigger problem: more homeless people. The total number of residents quickly rose to over 400. People from out of state were showing up to take advantage of the generosity. With the situation officially out of control, the city gave notice to everyone and brought in bulldozers to level the area. The new plan is to place a fence around the area and issue 90 day registration tickets to set a limit of 170 residents.

I see three warnings for project managers from this well intentioned public image problem.

First, even the best intentioned additions to your project need to be planned, estimated and agreed to. We all want to exceed our client’s expectations. The temptation is strong to add things to the project and eat the cost. After all, it’s a simple change and we are a bit ahead of schedule anyway.

The problem is that little things add up. Even if you are giving it away, use a change management process to assess and communicate the impact to the project in time, cost, resources, etc. Once the value is understood you can give it away. If you hide the value it will be appear as if it was in scope already and not really an addition. It becomes just one more homeless person entering Tent City.

Second, consider the risks involved in the actions you take. Tent City seemed like a good idea at the time but it exploded into something ugly. The council thought far enough in advance to provide facilities and fresh water but failed to mitigate the influx of non-Ontario residents. Get your team to perform a Risk Assessment early and often. You should set aside time as a team to brainstorm potential risks minimally monthly and whenever something significant changes (see topic: Risky Business).

Finally, sometimes you have to admit your mistake and bring in the bulldozers. Had the city of Ontario continued to ignore the problem eventually someone would have died. In addition to the tragedy of loosing a human life, it would likely result in lawsuits and even more bad press. If additions to your project are bringing down the property value, it may be time to plow it under and put a fence up to control the scope.

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