Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A failure to listen - scope definition and the lack of shared understanding of requirements

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Last week, we examined ‘strategy alignment and implementation’, looking at how companies can become over-extended through uncontrolled, uneven growth, thereby exposing themselves to greater risk through problems of quality or delay.

We now turn to the issue of scope definition and the failure to achieve a shared understanding over requirements. 

What is the problem?
Organisations fail to define a scope of work with sufficient clarity to enable third-parties (i.e. contractors, partners, suppliers) to meet their expectations.  Whilst a contract for work may be agreed and signed, unspoken assumptions about it only become apparent once work begins and both sides realise that there was a lack of shared understanding of the work requirements - for example, ordering ‘beef’ when you want steak results in disappointment when a burger turns up.  Failure to establish the requisite mutual understanding results in more being asked of one party than originally expected, perceived by them as ‘scope creep’.

How does it manifest itself?
Work may take longer than expected, as one side realises it is more complex than anticipated. Quality may suffer as short-cuts are used to try to make up time.  Costs escalate far beyond initial estimates and contractual arrangements may have to be reviewed as one party realises it may incur significant losses. Examples from the news might include:

·         The late delivery of aircraft such as Concorde, the Airbus A380 and the Joint Strike Fighter programme.

·         The over-budget delivery of infrastructure projects such as the Suez Canal and the Sydney Opera House.
What is its impact?

As work increases in both quantity and complexity, one party may find it lacks sufficient resources to execute the work, forcing it to recruit or sub-contract additional capability, usually at significantly increased cost. Original plans are found to be unworkable and become meaningless. Failure to recognise the implications of the changed situation reduces management credibility and overall morale suffers as relations between client and contractor deteriorate.  Delivery is delayed, over-budget and with increased risk.
What recommendations are made to address it?

Breaking down the adversarial model of projects (and associated contractual relationships) and moving towards a more collaborative, Agile approach (with smaller, faster iterative loops) is often recommended as a way of increasing mutual understanding. 

On the other hand, only project teams that have gone through the pain of a creeping scope or increasing complexity realise just how detailed requirements have to be in order to ensure that contracting parties achieve mutual understanding over scope. 

Good lessons capture and re-use help to inform and warn future teams of this necessity and a Peer Assist programme can help teams where planning is already underway.  For further information about these services, please visit the Knoco website.

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