Solving Life’s Problems with Scope

My sister often complains about how complex her life has become, how much she has to do. She’s a mother of two teenagers; neither of the teens drive, which also makes her a driver; she’s a full-time professional with a position of responsibility; she is the wife of a husband who also works and attends school full-time; and she cares for our elderly mother, who has 24/7 caregivers. She likes to say that she is basically running three households: hers, my mother’s, and her office. Oh, and she’s the secretary for the professional organization that she’s a member of. There just isn’t enough time in the day.

My sister has a scope problem.

In project management, there is a model called the Project Management Triangle, which says that – for a project to be effective – you must balance three concepts: scope, time, and resources (aka, costs). The three are directly related: when you change how much you have of one, the others must also shift.

People tend to reach for the levers of time and resources to fix problems with projects.

  • The boss says to cut two people from the team – and the manager says the project will take more time.
  • The customer says they need it twice as fast, and the manager says then they’ll have to hire more people to get the job done.

The concept of scope gets forgotten.

What exactly is scope, and what does this have to do with my sister’s problem?

Scope is often defined as a quantity of work: this product will produce 500 widgets.

Scope also reflects quality: the widgets will be produced with X errors per hundred widgets; or each widget will have the ability to withstand X pounds of pressure.

When you are defining scope for a more creative project, the challenge increases, but is still important: we will produce a series of videos that promotes X. Each video will be X minutes long. But then the creativity takes over: will you use the existing sets or select new sets? Who will star in the videos, can you get away with a lesser-known subject-matter-expert or do you need a superstar? How many camera angles to include, how many wardrobe changes – these are also factors of scope.

And scope also includes your level of tolerance for imperfections: how many people are going to evaluate the finished product? How many rounds of review will they do? Every good editor will tell you that every time they review a document, they will find more things that require correction – I know I do.

At one point in my career, I moved from being the communications manager to being the operations director, who managed the communications manager. Letting go of my old role was hard: I had been good at that role and being good at that was part of what earned my promotion.

When I recognized my scope problem, I started to scale back and compartmentalize. I scaled back by stopping looking at each routine communication; instead I did occasional audits for big-picture issues to raise with the manager – shifts in tone or increase in quantity, for example. I also compartmentalized how I looked at communications: I stopped fixing the writing itself or the procedures and focused on how the communication aligned with our strategy and priorities– then I sent the writer off to partner with the process manager to make sure the procedures were accurate and the communications manager for make sure the change management and writing were solid.

I had to, otherwise I would have become the bottleneck in the process. I would have had to ask for more time or more resources to get the work done.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself faced with a problem where Time seems to be the only solution. If you find yourself saying that adding more Resources won’t work – because, well, you’re the only one who can do it – then you probably have a scope problem.

Let’s go back to my sister. When we talk, we discuss outsourcing some of the work. For example, when she grocery shops, she goes to three different stores: one that has great produce; one that has great prices on pantry staples; and one that has the best quality meats. Often she found herself doing this three-part shop for herself and, later in the week, for Mom. Finally, she just ordered for Mom online and had the groceries delivered. Problem solved. Was the scope – the quality of the groceries – as good? No, but they were good enough.

And, often, that’s what we need to focus on. Is this good enough?

She used to create these birthday extravaganzas for her kids. Invite the entire school, bake for weeks in advance, work out incredible themes. One year, exhausted, she unrolled the slip-n-slide that she had picked up at a garage sale, ordered pizza, enlisted her daughter to bake cupcakes, invited the core cub-scout troop – and her son had the best birthday party ever.

So, the next time you find yourself stretched too thin: ask yourself, can I do less? Can I get away with lower standards for myself: do I really need this level of quality, a level of quality that only I can achieve? Or can I get away with assigning my son to make dinner once a week and putting up with hamburgers or pizza? You may find your sense of time shifts.

This is particularly relevant as we go into the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to be scope extravaganzas. How many times has your Thanksgiving menu exploded? How often do you kill yourself trying to get everyone in the family at the same table? When you look around Christmas morning, does it look like a toy store exploded all over your living room? Do you kill yourself trying to find the PERFECT Christmas present for your spouse? Your Mom? Your kids? Your coworker? Do you, like my grandmother, have a Christmas Card list of over 250 people and insist you have to hand-address each envelope.

Do you have a scope problem?

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