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5 Tips for Limiting and Preventing 'Scope Creep' on IT Projects

Here are five tips for IT professionals to manage change requests before they turn into scope creep and disrupt the project’s timing and profitability.

Poll a group of IT managers and consultants and ask them if the tasks required to complete a project were exactly the same as those outlined in the original action plan. The answer will be a resounding “no,” as change requests and new action items are impossible to avoid. While changes are inevitable, they must be effectively managed so they don’t run the risk of altering the entire project scope. If they do, then it’s known as “scope creep,” a situation where new requests change the project, usually because the changes (and procedures for changes) were not controlled or documented properly.

Unfortunately, scope creep acts as a weed. If it’s allowed to grow freely, then it spreads to other parts of the project, or the change requests become deeper and more involved. If an IT consulting manager allows their developers to work on a new client-requested capability that is outside of the original agreement, and does so without additional invoicing, then profit margins suffer. And, the client will feel that such requests will be accepted across the board. After the developers are done, if the client then asks for another significant tweak to the website, they won’t be thrilled if that request is met with an extra invoice. Scope creep happens when exceptions are made and precedents are set.

IT consultants know they cannot predict or control the client’s requests, but they can manage how those changes affect the scope. Here are five tips for IT professionals to manage change requests before they turn into scope creep and disrupt the project’s timing and profitability.

1. Set the Project Start and End Dates

The completion deadline for a project is always on the minds of IT managers and consultants. It is a vital deadline, one that shows that the team can work quickly and collaboratively. Finishing a project on time is often dependent on starting it on time. It’s a simple concept, but one that greatly influences the potential impact of change requests. If the application development team is two weeks late starting on a project, then they’ll be hard pressed to meet deadlines if the scope of work consistently changes. Starting on time provides a cushion to accept reasonable changes and still meet deadlines.

Keeping the team on task can be accomplished by using a task management solution that is tied directly into individual timekeeping. The impact of change orders is exponential as deadlines approach, so consultant managers must track time to see if there’s any room for additional work. By using a cloud-based task solution, they can see the time required for any tasks and have the needed context to understand if they should ask the client for more money.

2. Communicate Transparently

Armed with context, managers can then communicate more transparently with the client. This communication has to start at the beginning with the initial agreement. This is the time to set the relationship on the proper path, with a clearly defined scope of work that outlines all of the firm’s capabilities and how they’ll interact with the client. Will the development team take direction from the client’s marketing, sales and customer service staff? What if the direction from those departments is contradictory? Open communication can prevent misunderstandings and redundancies, which can require additional work and pull all of the profits out of a project. It can proactively spot and fix small problems before they turn into complex issues.

Communication between the client and the consultant should be geared toward managing interactions. If the client has owed the team some technical specs for two weeks, then they have to understand how that inaction can relate to an extended deadline. The protocols for meetings should also be communicated early in the project. Meetings can run long, and some clients might want several of the department heads from a consulting firm all together in a meeting. Without some communicated structure, consultants can lose control over how their billable time is spent, so they miss out on revenue due to long-winded meetings.

3. Add Structure to Change Requests

IT consultants should create predefined steps that both internal staff and the client need to complete when submitting change orders. These steps should be established in the planning stage and be openly discussed so there are no surprises down the road. The orders should include specific direction on what change is expected, and then the IT team should be able to amend the order with their own notes, or be able to deny the request without additional compensation.

Consider a business intelligence (BI) platform integration where the client wants to add a new analytics capability. If they merely send an email to the project lead, who then begins work, there’s no process or context to the request. The change order should include “intent” so the team can understand why the client wants the new BI features. Knowing the “why” could then prompt managers to direct the client to another feature or solution, instead of their initial request. Scope creep is kept at bay with this type of dynamic because work is more closely aligned with the client’s actual needs. Structured change orders prevent misunderstandings and stops clients from submitting changes on a whim, and instead encourages them to think deeper about the impact of suggested changes.

4. Manage the Time Budget

The first signs of trouble on a project can often be found in the time report, but when that happens, it’s often too late in the project to fix the issues. Many IT firms still use outdated systems to record time, including spreadsheets or other manual processes that are fraught with errors and feature no interconnectivity to other systems or data. Using an advanced, cloud-based timekeeping solution is the best way to minimize errors and instantly see how time is being spent.

The benefit of such a solution extends beyond more accurate timekeeping. It also produces analytics that managers can use to look at individual and companywide metrics on performance. It can also be used predictively, so managers can consider how impactful future change orders might be on profitability based on past performance. They can optimize their team’s workflow and know in advance if certain change orders should be rejected or met with the request for additional funds.

5. Expect On-Time Payments

Scope creep is a killer because it ultimately means doing uncompensated work. The client wants to make a change and is trying to see if it can be bundled into the current agreement, or more likely they don’t understand that there should be additional costs because the consultancy didn’t outline change order rules. To prevent scope creep from ruining a project, it’s vital to manage the time and set expectations in terms of how invoices are paid and they are paid on time. If a consultancy is not paid on time, then it needs to be crystal-clear that work then stops immediately. Of course this payment/stoppage rule has to be established in the initial agreement and adhered to without exception.

IT managers and consultants that embrace these five strategies can lower the impacts of scope creep and ensure more of their team’s work directly translates into revenue. By creating connections between tasks and time and engaging in transparent communication, IT firms can meet deadlines without sacrificing profits.

Shafat Qazi, founder and CEO of BQE Software, is an engineer-turned-entrepreneur who created highly awarded time billing software, BillQuick, while still in college. He set out to make time tracking, billing, and project management easier for engineers as well as all service professionals and continues to perfect BQE Software products hands-on today. This story was originally published by TechWire.