Success Factors, Part 5: Match Change to Vision

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As we have already explored in this series of articles, the business vision of a project and therefore the project vision is critical to its success. Without it, managing the inevitable changes to scope is difficult.

If we are to manage scope changes, we need to have a well-defined scope. Since the scope sets the project boundaries, it is helpful to have a clear, visual picture of what will and what will not be included in the project. This visual representation is called a deliverable work breakdown structure (WBS) and looks like an organization chart. The highest-level project deliverable is in the top box, with subsequently lower levels appearing below. We accomplish this WBS through a process of decomposition, or breaking large deliverables into smaller ones. The lowest level is called a work package and is the level that can be used for estimating and scheduling.

The project scope, that is, each deliverable that will be incorporated in the project, needs to align with both the project vision and business vision. If any of the recommended deliverables do not align, there will likely be resistance by the business to spend time on it. Each work output, whether related to the project, project management or the end product, needs to be explained as either contributing directly to the end result or reducing project risk. Once this deliverable WBS has been completed and approved, it becomes the scope baseline.

Almost every project has requests for changes, so it is wise to describe how these requests will be handled before the first inevitable request for change has occurred. This description is part of the scope management plan, which sets the scope baseline and describes how variances to the baseline will be handled, as well as the process for changing the scope baseline. This scope management plan, therefore, includes strategies for handling changes during project execution and control.

Some of these strategies may include:



  • Negotiating changes so that requests are accompanied with preferred means to balance the project. For example, the project manager may need to extend the end date as a result of the change. Or, the project manager may need to increase the budget or remove some of the promised functionality.
  • Prioritizing changes to eliminate the wish-list items and to ensure that required changes are included.
  • Ensuring that there are authorized approval levels, so that depending on the size of the changes, different management levels may approve requests. Large requests will likely need to go to the sponsor for approval.
  • A formal “system” (that is, the process and associated paperwork) for approving requests.
  • Ensuring that only changes aligning with the business and project vision are approved. It is this last strategy that we will further discuss.


Throughout the project, it is very easy for our projects to expand uncontrollably. This unauthorized expansion is called “scope creep.” Most people know what this is, but not why it occurs or how to control it. Here are some reasons why scope creep commonly occurs:



  • Requested changes are perceived to be small. We tell ourselves that it won’t hurt to include a small request, even if it has nothing to do with the project vision.
  • When requests are made, we often like to exceed expectations, so we sometimes sneak changes into the project that do not align with the vision. We rationalize that if we sneak a request into the project, the requester will owe us a favor, which might benefit the relationship.
  • We convince ourselves that there are economies of scale. Even when requests do not align with the vision, the business community may pressure project managers for inclusion, convincing them that if these requests are not included now, they will sit in the queue forever.


Each one of these reasons may be valid and there are times when project managers allow scope creep. Each time, however, the risk to the project increases. It is best if the sponsor, project manager and business community all understand the importance of handling only requests that enhance the project vision and allow the organization to realize its vision.

We have learned that the best advice is to evaluate changes to scope on how well they match to the project vision. Good project scope management plans state that before the first request for change has occurred, stakeholders have agreed and signed off on how to handle those changes. By tying initial deliverables to the vision and then later requests for additions to scope, project managers have a means by which to help evaluate changes.

Of course, the sponsor, not the project manager, has final decision on changes, which brings us back to that vision thing. It gives impetus to doing projects in the first place. It leads into the deliverables and tasks to accomplish the vision. In addition, it can help guide the project along on its way through the changes that occur, without sidetracking or derailing the project.

Putting It All Together
At first, going through the steps feels a little awkward and unnatural. After one or two efforts, though, people usually start seeing the benefits and the awkwardness disappears. Then, a scary thing starts to happen. People hold off starting on work until they get a project charter. Or, team members look forward to lessons learned sessions and celebrating the end of a successful phase or project closeout. Then, you know you’re on your way to “project success” and can stop playing that hero role so much. You get more sleep and have more free time to enjoy!

Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson, co-principals of Edina-based Watermark Learning, have more than 25 years each of experience in business, project management, business analysis and training/consulting. They have presented numerous workshops, seminars and presentations to over 10,000 participants on project management, requirements analysis and related subjects.


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