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I recently read Dan Pink’s book, The Power of Regret and it seems to me that there are several useful concepts that can help project managers struggling to identify project scope in a rapidly changing world.

I should point out that you may or may not need to fully identify project scope, depending on your project. A building construction project will need a pretty clear scope while a project to develop a new product will require so much agility that you might want to break that project into phases. And depending on what you are developing, you might be re-thinking your scope every month or every day.

Project managers are a bit like good drivers. They must look ahead, while keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror and anything that might pop out from either side. Your goal, as the project manager, is to meet the objectives that your client or your management team has. And there are no guarantees that those objectives won’t change, as competition introduces new products, initial efforts to meet the objectives fail, or cash flow problems hinder performance.

Let’s take an example. You are the project manager for a regional hospital, and you have been asked to lead a project to open a new pediatric wing. The construction piece of this project has been in progress for some time and the opening is one year away. The COVID pandemic is complicating everything, with case numbers going up and down as different variants emerge. The project charter has been issued and you are in charge. How do you identify project scope? What are you going to do?

3 useful concepts to help project managers struggling to identify project scope in a rapidly changing world. #scopecreep #projectscope #scope #project #regrets #projectmanagement #smartprojex Share on X

Identify project scope exclusions.

As you consider potential pieces of scope, look for items that you can exclude without feeling regret. Consider that less is more. The less scope it takes to fully meet the project objectives the better. In this example, ask yourself if that large kick-off celebratory party for donors is needed to meet the objectives that have been handed down to you from senior management. Ask leadership if opening the entire wing at one time is important. Does your project include patient transfers?

And this point applies throughout the life of the project. Scope creep is a massive problem in many projects. It can be a case of just adding new features, and not knowing when to stop. Or management may be changing its mind about its priorities. Or there could be the temptation to think that while we have that wall down, we may as well fix all the old plumbing lines. Only your company can decide where to draw the line. Generally speaking, it’s better to fully accomplish a few smaller projects that meet the goal than to get stuck on a massive project that fails.

If you are building a bridge, a partial bridge will not suffice. But if you are building software, a few smaller features might be a game-changer. So, look at your scope like a good editor looks at a writing project. What can you cut?

Use the “Regret Optimization Framework” to evaluate scope choices.

Pink introduces what he calls a “Regret Optimization Framework.” He doesn’t advocate for letting regret overwhelm or paralyze us. He encourages us to optimize regret or use it to its full advantage. To achieve that, he notes that there are four core regrets that cause most of our struggles: foundation, boldness, moral, and connection regrets. If a potential regret falls into one of these categories, take it seriously. If it doesn’t, let it go.

Foundation regrets are some of the deepest regrets we can have. They occur when we choose to not take a great opportunity seriously, to overspend or not save, or not take care of our health. Note that responsibility is a big factor. If I lose money when the stock market drops, I’m disappointed. If I failed to diversify my investments, and lose a ton of money, I’m devastated. I may well regret my failure to not take seriously my responsibility to properly manage my investments.

Boldness regrets occur when we miss an opportunity to take a bold move. In the project world, not all projects are particularly bold endeavors. But opening a children’s wing in a hospital is a bold move. Pink found that we are “more likely to regret the chances we didn’t take than the chances we did.” (p. 79)

As for moral regrets, project managers have an obligation to ensure that the team behaves in accordance with the cultural standards in the organization. Lying, cheating, stealing, and a host of other behaviors have never served a project well.

Under the regret optimization framework, we should thoroughly evaluate any potential regrets that fall under the core categories when we work to identify project scope.

Regret Optimization Framework...If a potential regret falls into one of these categories, take it seriously. If it doesn’t, let it go. #scopecreep #projectscope #scope #project #regrets #projectmanagement #smartprojex Share on X

Imagine connection regrets that could backfire and cause you problems.

When you first start a project there is so much to do and it can be hard to figure out where to start. You have no plan, no task list, no committed team. You are starting from scratch. And yet, you will need those things and time is precious.

One of the core regrets that Pink discusses is connection regrets. These come from “relationships that have come undone or that remain incomplete.” (p. 133) Think about the people in and around your project. Are there any stakeholders that you will regret not speaking with at this time should this project start to blow up? This is the beginning of your stakeholder identification process. Don’t try to finish creating that stakeholder register before you walk across the campus and start talking with the key players.

Get to know these people. Build bridges with them. Find out what is important to them. Listen to what they are telling you and what they aren’t saying. Pay attention to their body language. Who are the key decision-makers and what constraints have they imposed on your project? For example, are you responsible for any construction questions or decorating decisions, or are you supposed to be handling that opening weekend celebrations?

When you start getting conflicting opinions, it’s time to pull some people together in a conference room and hammer out the expectations. Are there celebrations that need to occur before sick patients move in and is that part of your scope? Does the entire wing need to open on one day, or can it be opened in phases? Do the wall murals need to be finished or can they evolve during the initial months or years of operation?

Final Thoughts

If you are struggling to identify project scope, I’ve written other blogs that might help. How about this one on finding project scope clarity? And, if you are questioning the need to identify project scope, try this blog on whether we even need to define project scope. And once you’ve identified your project scope, don’t risk regretting that you failed to properly consider risks, document your project details and decisions, and otherwise manage your project and people.

If you need some help on how to do that, check out my Eight Lesson book on Project Management.