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Friday, April 4, 2014

All I want is a little change to the Project Scope...

[Also available as a podcast]

 The Cost of Change

We have all heard about how the cost of change increases exponentially the further you are along the path of project delivery. If the unit of effort is, say, (1) at requirements stage to accommodate a feature change, in design it increases to (10x), in development it increases to (100x) and once delivered it may increase again to (1000x) or more. Or perhaps a different scale applies to your project, but you get the idea.

The same rules apply when you are doing construction, when scope becomes set in stone - or at least in concrete. Changes are easiest when you are still talking with the architect and drawing up the first set of plans on a napkin, but after they have been formally submitted for review and approved by Council, it gets more complicated and costly. Any changes to the approved plans require rework by the architect, then a review by another dozen or so eyes, and when that is done, it needs to get re-approved by the city planning department. Oh, and to top it all off, yet another cheque written out to the builder to pay for the change in scope.

Can We Build It? Yes, We Can!

In 2005, we had the pleasure (and pain) to build a house, our very first one. Not the first house we ever bought, just the first one that was not "used" by previous iterations of owners. Nothing wrong with recycled houses, of course - they provide excellent opportunities for honing up handyman skills as you maintain the house, fix things that wear out, or replace some horrid feature a previous owner had just loved to bits. This was going to be our house, we would be the first to move in - and it was exciting, but also quite nerve-wracking. After all, we put down a lot of money for an idea and some dirt.

We paid the deposit on the house before the build started. We had looked at a few different plans and lots with the builder, but had decided on this particular combination as it looked great on paper, and the layout looked ideal for our family. At this stage, the plan had already been approved, but the dirt was still in the normal location (in the to-be-hole they were going to be digging for the basement).

It started out fairly smoothly, after catching the small detail that the real estate agent had attached the blueprints for lot 17 in the other subdivision they were building to the contract , instead of this particular lot. It would have been quite interesting, as the lot shapes were totally different and the other lot 17 house plan would have put our living room in our neighbour's front lawn... However, that was sorted out with only minor embarrassment from the developer. Hey, it happens; they had a lot of construction on the go - about a hundred houses at once.

We sat down with the developer and made a number of "small" changes here and there, and the developer was very proactive in working with us. He told us well in advance about the deadlines for when we had to make particular design decisions.Prior to breaking ground, we requested a number of changes that the builder had no problems accommodating.

You know, reasonable things like:
  • Add Garage side door into the yard ($850) - Impact: Small, build wall around hole
  • Add Garage window ($500) - Impact: Small, build wall around hole
  • Widen garage by 10 inches/22cm ($1000) - Impact: Medium, change of foundation and garage roof-line. Within maximum tolerance for building footprint percentage vs lot size.
"Wait, a thousand dollars for only 10 inches? Why bother?"

Well, you might laugh, but it made a big difference to storage. It allowed for a long set of shelves on one side.
  • Add Skylight ($4,400) - Impact: Redesign roof truss configuration, limit to 4x4 foot unit.
  • And so on.
All in all, an extra $13,000 in scope changes before the first shovel was lifted by the builder, and a hefty increase in the deposit. Ka-ching!

Every day or so we would drive by the site to see what changes had transpired on the site. For a week or so, not very much at all happened - and then they started digging. A week later and they were pouring the foundations. We walked carefully around afterward, eager to get a look at everything as the concrete cured.

I kept copies of the plans handy, as I was trying to visualize what the finished product would look like. Walking carefully around the site, I made quiet observations like "hmmm, isn't that hole quite close to the neighbour? Isn't the digging for the foundation going to collapse their sidewalk?" The properties were all zero-lot-line, or in other words, the minimum clearance from the house to the property line, which was 4 feet. Their sidewalk ended on the property line, and was currently attached to their house but not much else.

I was assured all would be well, once they filled in the dirt around the foundation. Eying the large-ish section of the neighbour's concrete sidewalk suspended several feet in the air, I was not so sure - but you have to trust your builder, right?

Is there such a thing as a Dumb Question?

I was starting to felt pretty good about working with the builder, and I was beginning to have what I felt were reasonably technical conversations with him as I learned a whole range of new construction terminology. Hey, I was a Project Manager right? Sure it was in IT and not construction, but projects are projects, there has to be some common ground. He also seemed to be pretty open to changes too, as long as you were happy to pull out your cheque book while you talked.

After the foundations had cured enough, they started framing in the basement and the joists for the ground floor. It was a big moment - to be able to stand in the middle of your new house, before the walls went up. It was one big, flat expanse of plywood, with just the one hole. The hole, of course, was the stairwell, which spiraled down into the dark basement.

I walked around the floor, building plans in hand. I could finally start to see where things would go - the living room, dining area, kitchen and so on. I paced out the dimensions of each future room. Big living room, big kitchen - excellent! Decent sized family room and dining room - all right! Then I went over to where my future office would be - off the living room, behind the stairs.

Hmmm, I thought. I re-measured the distance between the stairwell and the outer edge of the house. Hmmm. Kind of small, I thought.

The next day when we came around to check the house, the builder was there. He smiled a lot as I walked with him around the site, discussing the construction progress and next steps. We were approaching the stairwell, preparing to go down into the basement when I asked the question.

"Um, do you think you could move the stairwell?"

He turned to look at me. "What?"

"The room behind the stairwell looks pretty small, can you move the stairwell just a bit?"

He stared at me like I had sprouted a horn and an extra set of eyes. His smile was long gone. "No, definitely not."

"That room will be my office, are you sure you can't make it a little bigger by moving the stairs a little? You don't have the walls up yet, and just this bit of the stairs so far..."

He turned to face me square on, hands on his hips. "No, no, it's far too late for that."

He then went on to give me a lecture about architecture and the fact that THE most important design component of a multi-story building is not the walls or the roof, but the stairwell. You design that in first and everything else works around it. So no, there was no way they could move the stairwell. They would have to change everything. So no, definitely not. No.


In that crushing moment I realized two things:
  1. I had just lot a big chunk of credibility with the builder. (i.e. I am pretty sure he had just decided that I was an idiot), and
  2. No matter what all those leadership and communication books say, yes, there ARE some stupid questions.

Window of Opportunity

On your projects, there will be windows of opportunity where change will be easy. As time goes on, introducing the same change becomes harder and more costly, and you will soon reach a point where trying to introduce that change is no longer feasible at all. Not impossible, but just so impractically costly and disruptive, that you simply have to concede and let it go.

Unless it is so important, perhaps, that you are prepared to dig up the foundations and start all over again - but those cases would be extremely rare.

You should also balance the importance of the changes vs your project finances - whether you are paying for it yourself, or you are managing the project for someone else. You need to ask yourself (and the stakeholders) - how important is that change, really? Does the stakeholder simply want it, or is there a strong, compelling reason that it should be made? Is it worth the cost?

I have written previously on the importance of developing exceptional requirements - as early as possible, with the customer/vendor working together. This will go a long way towards getting things right the first time, but it is never perfect. You won't get all of the requirements identified completely up front - you will learn things you did not previously know as you go, you wil refine the plan, and new opportunities may also present themselves unexpectedly. The key is to be vigilant and look out for those opportunities as they arise, and try to request changes before it is too late. You need the decision makers primed to be able to approve changes quickly.

Sometimes the window of opportunity may be extremely small - days, or even hours. It might even literally be a window.

You might, for example, be standing on the second floor while they are beginning the framing of the walls and say, "You know, if we moved the window half it's width to the left, we would get a really great view of the mountain every morning, with the sun behind it." A change like that may not be a big deal to the builder at all, if your timing is right. It may also make your stay in that house that much nicer for many years to come - rather than have a permanent view half-obstructed by a chimney you did not know would be there when you started, but had recently sprouted up.

If you are really lucky, a minor change like that may not even cost you at all, and it may deliver long-lasting value. Those opportunities do happen all the time, but you have to be prepared to notice them and act on them.


Whether you are building a house, or managing a project that is in no way related to construction, change is inevitable. Projects are vehicles for change, after all - why would we not expect to have changes to the scope during our project?

They trick is to manage scope change carefully - keep track of all changes (no matter how minor), look for opportunities and try to make any changes as early as possible - or at least at the earliest opportunity.

From a Project Control perspective, you also need to keep a close eye on the builder - or the vendor delivering your product/solution/outcome. "You Get What You Inspect," or so the saying goes - and that is particularly true with construction.

We were at the house site almost every day - we tried not to be in the way, or to be annoying to the workers. Usually we dropped by around dinner time when they had left for the day. Through our regular visits, we were able to point out a number of things where the carpenter did not seem to be following the plan, or something did not look right. Sometimes we misinterpreted things, but we also found some real problems that would have been more difficult to resolve if they had been left unnoticed. The cracked plastic shower/bath unit, for example - an over-tight screw had damaged the tub, they tried to repair it, but in the end (as we had wanted) it had to be replaced with a new unit. A couple week delay in getting a new one, but far better than future leaks.

I would like to think that I regained some respect from the builder after the "stairwell incident", but I can never be sure - he was respectful, but maybe just a little patronizing.

When they put the plywood on the roof, we were quite excited to see the exterior coming to a close. They already had the vinyl siding on, and the wood fascia which they had started to paint in some sections. We were looking forward to seeing the completion of the colour scheme we had chosen from the builder's options - designed by his own wife, in fact. The asphalt shingles on the roof were to be a dark browny-black, with a hint of copper sparkle to catch the sun.

The next day, I came by in the afternoon and saw the roof layers finishing off the last section. Rain was expected in a day or so, and they wanted to get it sealed up.

The builder was there, and came out to greet me. We stood on the street, watching them work.

"It looks kind of black," I said.

"What?" he asked.

"The colour scheme shows the shingles are browny with shiny copper flecks. Those are solid, and look more black than brown. No flecks."

He turned to look at me. "I'm sure they are the right shingles."

I paused and looked carefully up at the roof. The sun was shining, and there was a definite absence of glint or colour.

"Um, they look black. They are not the shingles from the colour scheme," I turned back to face the builder. I firmed up my resolve, determined to put the stairwell incident behind me. Besides, this was different. I knew I was right.

"Can you please take those black ones off and put on the correct shingles from the colour scheme? They did not put on the right shingles."

The builder stared at me for a long time, then took a slow, deep breath before replying. "No, definitely not. It's too late for that. Besides, it's almost the same colour anyway. You won't notice after a while."

I sighed.

Some changes just cannot - or will not - be made, even to correct a mistake by the builder.

But you know, after a while the black looked OK - every other house on the block had colour and flecks, so ours was unique. We decided we could live with that "imperfection".

As for my "small" office? Once it was all painted and carpeted, the furniture was in place and I was sitting in my new office for the first time - I found the room was bigger than I thought it would be. In fact, it was perfect.

We didn't need to move the stairs after all.

Good luck with your projects, keep a close eye on your project scope, and look out for those ideal windows of opportunity for change.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP  
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