March 27th, 2012

What iPhoneography can teach you about scope control

Perfect composition depends on the artist, not the tool

Real photographers use real cameras. One of the first toys I bought with the income from my part-time job in high school was an SLR camera (no “D” in those days) (yeah, I’m that old). As I was 18 years old at the time, it basically means that all of my adult life (uh, a long time), I have equated “being serious about photography” with “having the right equipment”: a “real” camera with several lenses, a tripod, a polarizing filter, etc.  I carried this paradigm with me when I transitioned from film to digital about 5 years ago: after my initial purchase of a DSLR, I added a better tripod, a couple of lenses, a remote cable switch and a flash. As for my camera, there was never any question of my getting a “point-and-shoot” camera: such things were for children or for people who only wanted to take snapshots at family gatherings.

You cannot possibly make art without the right, and best, tools.

Then I heard about Chase Jarvis.

The best camera is the one that’s with you. When I first stumbled upon Chase Jarvis’ website about three years ago, my jaw dropped. I dream to take pictures like these…and he was doing it with an iPhone (the first one, not the 4S). A camera phone. The loser of loser point-and-shoot cameras.

If a loser camera could produce better pictures than I could with my DSLR, then what did that make me? (Don’t answer that.)

It finally dawned on me: my pictures sucked. And they sucked not because I didn’t master focus or depth of field or exposure. I didn’t master composition.

The problem wasn’t the tool. It was me.

It’s not the tools, it’s you. There was a point in my career over ten years ago when I faced a crisis. I had just finished two projects, one after the other, which were considered failures. The indicators were awful: –50% gross margin, eight months late and a pissed-off customer. You don’t pull in numbers like that (and do it twice in a row to boot) without getting a whole lot of phone calls from a whole lot people asking a whole lot of questions that you’d rather not answer. But the one question I knew they weren’t asking out loud was: was it the Project Manager?

So, I had a little performance review with myself and asked myself the one question that no one had asked me: did I suck at this?

There were many reasons why these projects pulled in such dismal results. One of my favourite reasons, that I held onto like a crutch, was that I just didn’t have the right tools to allow me to control my projects. Getting even a simple report of budget versus actuals out of our woefully inadequate ERP system was like pulling teeth.

However it was only during that performance review with myself that I was finally able to admit the painful truth behind my failure.

It wasn’t the tools.

It was me.

I had totally and utterly failed to control my scope.

The art of project management is scope control. Controlling scope is the single most important thing that will result in project success, and it also happens to be the hardest thing to do well. All the S-curves and Gantt charts and PM Dashboards and flashing lights in the world won’t save your project unless you are in control of your scope. When project scope grows unchecked, you end up doing more than you planned, which makes it look like you took longer and spent more to do your project. But really, the only reason that the project took longer and cost more is because…well… you did more. And if you let scope increases “just happen” without telling anyone that you need more time and money (in other words, you didn’t update the project schedule and budget to take into account this additional work), you look like a really crappy Project Manager.

Like I did.

It’s really very simple: if you do more stuff, it takes longer and costs more. So, before you do more stuff, you need to make sure that everyone, especially your customer, knows that you’re doing more, is willing to pay for it and will give you more time to do it. Finding out at the end of the project that you did more is too late.

Scope control is more art than science: not only do you have to clearly identify your project scope (and look for the “gotchas” before they get you) at the beginning of the project, but you have to work daily (even hourly!) to protect your scope from changes.

Once I came to this realization, I decided to give myself one more chance before I went off and looked for another career. I decided to control the hell out of the scope of my next project.

That “next project”? It finished on-time, at double the revenue and 20% more gross margin than I started, with a happy customer. And how did I do this?

I controlled the hell out of that project scope.

I guess I didn’t suck after all.

How to control the hell out of your project scope. In six easy steps no less…

  1. Define the scope. You can’t control what you don’t know. So it’s crucial to spend time to understand your project before you dive in. Make sure that you can answer these questions: What does “done” look like? What are the list of things (deliverables) that the project will produce? When are they due? At what agreed cost? How do you know that the deliverables are good? (What are the success criteria?)
  2. Agree on the scope. The kick-off meeting is the forum to present your understanding of the scope, and to get an agreement from your customer / project sponsor as to what that scope is. Keep your representation of the scope as simple as possible without forgetting anything: use lists, tables and lots of pretty pictures to represent your scope. And don’t forget the schedule and budget: scope drives the project schedule and budget and not the other way around.
  3. Agree on how you will change the scope (the change process). Let’s not be naive: there is no way that your project scope will be static. Changes are inevitable. So it is best to agree at the beginning of the project (preferably at the kick-off meeting) on how you will change the scope. This change process must define: who will submit changes, what the format looks like, and who will approve them. As for the “who” on your side? You, of course. And only you.
  4. Publish the scope. Once you have an agreement on scope, publish it. Use whatever means are appropriate for your project (it could be as simple as an email). Just make sure that everyone who needs to know what the scope is knows it.
  5. Protect the scope. This is the hard part: protecting your scope. Remember how change is inevitable? This means that you have to be on the alert for clues that your scope is changing without you knowing about it. Learn to read (and listen) between the lines of any conversation you have with anyone even remotely involved in your project. Beware of sentences that start with “While you’re at it ….” or in French “Tant qu’à y être…”. And call a spade a spade: don’t be afraid to say things like “That’s a change. Let me look into it for you and I’ll let you know what the impact is on the schedule and the budget”.
  6. Update the scope. After you have agreed on changes (remember that change process you defined at the beginning of the project?), be sure you update and re-publish the scope. All that fun stuff you documented at the beginning of the project (the deliverables list, success criteria, schedule, budget, etc. etc) needs to be updated with your agreed changes. This way everyone knows that the “teeny tiny” whileyoureatit / tantquàyêtre will add another six months to the schedule and 50% more budget.

My super-duper scope control tools. To help me control the hell out of my project scope, I decided I would no longer hide behind a crappy ERP system. (Aren’t they all crappy?) Along with those six easy steps (that all of sudden I remembered I knew), I decided to use some magic tools of my own. Are you ready?

Camera+ Vibrancy, Hudson. Yes, snow in February. Finally.

My attempt at scope control.

  • The org chart tool in Power Point. For every element of work in the project, I drew a box. And I didn’t stop until I had drawn all of the boxes.
  • A pad of lined paper and a pen. Every time anyone mentioned anything that even remotely affected one of the boxes in my drawing I wrote it down on a list, in numerical order. And I called it my “change log”.
  • Excel. Ah, the duct tape that can fix any crappy ERP system. I got the costs out of the ERP system, slapped them in a worksheet, added a few columns and called it done. Every Monday, I updated it. A few hours a week was all it took to figure out if I was on budget.

As for the most important tool? Me.

Scope control is to project management what composition is to photography. No matter what expensive lens you buy, no matter what top-of-the-line DSLR camera you own, if you don’t master composition, you don’t master photography. Composition is what turns a photograph into art. And taking a photo with a camera phone forces you to block out the noise associated with tools (stuff like aperture, exposure, f-stops and filters) and focus on the art. Every time I take a picture with my iPhone (I no longer look down on camera phones), I am able to focus on that one thing that makes a photograph good: composition.

This is the same process I employed at that turning point in my career when I decided to control the hell out of my project scope. I ignored my frustration with inadequate tools, took out a pad of lined paper and focused on the one thing that makes a project good: scope control.

The best project management tool is the one that’s with you.

And that tool is…you.

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