3 Tips for Managing Requirement Changes

Two-thirds of all IT projects are cancelled, significantly delayed, or go over budget. Here's how to be in the other one-third.

by Vadim Katcherovski

According to The Standish Group, a major IT research institution, only 34 percent of IT projects are completed on time and within budget. Standish estimates that 51 percent overrun their schedules and surpass their budgets while 15 percent are cancelled. Although these findings show vast improvement from their first study in 1994, the rates are still alarming.

In this article we will review a key obstacle to project success -- changing requirements during the project lifecycle -- and explore how to prevent feature creep and better manage your project changes.

To facilitate our discussion, imagine that you are charge of an exciting marketing project for a large client. You’ve just completed putting together all of the marketing materials and send them off for approval. Your client is happy. A few days go by and you receive an e-mail: “How about we add this one more thing?” You agree, and add the requested feature to the project requirements. Then another e-mail arrives: “Hey, I thought more about it, and we should really have the several things on our poster.”

Yet another message says, “One more thing, my partner thought we should change the background and layout to something like this.” You keep adding to your project. With no end in sight, you’re now behind schedule and you’ve already put in more hours than you ever thought you would. That’s feature creep.

Experienced project managers will tell you that one of the most common reasons why projects fail is due to the failure of controlling project requirements. Development projects, such as software or marketing, are more prone to this problem compared to tangible projects such as construction or manufacturing of a specific product. Tangible projects, generally receive much more attention during the planning phase than development projects and tend to be more controlled throughout the project lifecycle. Compare building a house vs. building a Web site as an example.

Adding a room to a house that’s already half-built can be next to impossible (not to mention will frustrate the engineers and construction workers), yet when building a Web site your clients can change their minds many times about the look and feel even if most of the work has already been done.

Development projects begin with an objective and specific goals in mind. But as project sponsors and stakeholders add onto the list of project requirements, the project end-goal begins to resemble less than what was originally conceived. While changes are an important part of a successful project, it is crucial for project stakeholders to have a clear vision and an understanding of project goals and objectives in order to avoid feature creep.

Changes are inevitable. As a project manager, it is important for you to establish a formal process for submitting, evaluating, and approving changes and their resulting impact on the project. If changes are not managed properly from the start, you can expect your project to experience schedule slips, cost overruns, and, as a result, decreased project quality. Let’s examine a few effective ways to fight feature creep and better control project changes through project management software.

Recommendation #1: Keep Project Tasks Separate from Feature Requests

Before computers became affordable, projects were managed with a sharpened pencil and some paper. Today, project management software is an extremely effective way of managing and tracking your projects. It’s almost a necessary tool. One of the biggest advantages of using project management software is it allows you to organize and manage your project tasks, feature requests, and bug reports.

When a project sponsor or stakeholder requests a new feature, you must treat it separately from your on-going project activities. This enables you to maintain the scope of your project and ensure that it stays within schedule and budget. Although a feature request can seem minor, on-going small changes to your project scope can accumulate to have a significant overall impact on the project. If you let these feature requests snowball, you’ll soon be buried in an avalanche.

With change requests separated from your ongoing tasks, you’ll be able to identify which requests can be implemented as part of the project without delaying final shipping or causing cost overruns. In the end, keeping project tasks and feature requests separate allows you, the project manager, to better recognize and track changes to the project requirements. You’ll keep your clients happy by completing your projects on time, and you’ll keep your team happy by not working them to death.

Recommendation #2: Implement a Change Approval Process and Keep a Change Log

During the initial planning stages of a project, establish and implement a change approval process that will govern how change and feature requests are submitted and managed. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate system, but it should be made clear how requests affecting the scope of a project will be handled by the project manager. Educate the project stakeholders about what information must be submitted as part of the change request as well as the decision and the communication processes which will take place after the submission.

Your change approval process should allow necessary and favorable requests to filter through, with appropriate scheduling and costs adjustments, while keeping unsuitable requests from being implemented into the project.

A good practice is to record and track all change requests in a change log. This log will become a centralized source of information on submitted changes and a key communication tool between the project stakeholders and team members.

Recommendation #3: Use Online Communication and Collaboration Tools

The success of a project relies on effective communication. Online communication and collaboration tools (including Web conferencing, file sharing, and message boards) are a great way of storing and organizing information in a centralized location.

Face-to-face meetings can be costly, especially when you are involved with stakeholders who are not easily accessible or are geographically located in another part of the country, yet alone somewhere else in the world. Those long-distance phone calls can add up quickly. Web conferencing tools are a great way in replacing those calls or meetings, all while providing an effective communication platform. With the support of both audio and visual technologies, Web conferencing enables project managers to frequently work in real time with project stakeholders, providing status updates, and overcoming obstacles before they develop into major issues.

Feature creep is often a result of unclear project planning and a lack of ongoing access to project documentation. Accessible information is key to the success of your project. Imagine that you’re away from the office on vacation and a project stakeholder is trying to obtain a document located in your e-mail inbox. What do they do? They can give you a call, providing you have your BlackBerry with you, but with online collaboration tools, project team members and stakeholders can have access to up-to-date project information (such as a change log), allowing them to make effective project decisions regardless of their geographical location, and without having to disturb you.

You can prevent feature creep and better manage project changes by:

  • Keeping project tasks and requests separate
  • Implementing a formal change approval process and a change log
  • Using online collaboration and communication tools

The Last Word

By implementing these best project-scope management practices and establishing clear stakeholder responsibilities, you are on your way to a successful project.

Vadim Katcherovski is CEO of Logic Software. You can contact the author at vadim@easyprojects.net.

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