Continuing on the topic of project creeps – see previous post “Scope Creep: Balancing Risk and Value” – this post is about less known but very common phenomenon of Hope Creep, sometimes also referred to as student syndrome.
Most of us would remember from our student days (and probably some recent events) how we approached our assignments. How it felt that we had all the time in the world to do it at first and how we procrastinated for ages till we could no longer postpone the work. The agonizing rush to complete the work then followed with hope that it is going to be OK in the end…
Hope creep is when project team members are getting behind schedule but they report that they are on time, hoping to catch up.
My main concern about hope creep is not about team members experiencing problems, but about the lack of communication about it. One of the less identifiable creeps, hope creep tends to hide until the very last moment. When it comes to light, it is often too late.
I believe the main cause of hope creep is fear. Fear of being punished, of being frowned upon, of being seen as unprofessional or not fit for the job. Long, non-measurable tasks contribute to the difficulty of detecting delays and allow the agony of hope creep to persist for days and even weeks. Overly optimistic estimates in project plans put a lot of pressure to meet unrealistic targets. The resulting anxiety may lower productivity and cause further delays of the already stretched schedule.
Some people think that this problem can be eliminated by adding some extra time to the task estimate. Unfortunately, in my experience it doesn’t help. Imagine you are given five days to do a job that normally takes you three days to complete. Would you start it on time and proceed to complete it early? You know that you have more time to do it than you really need, and there are always other priorities, so this job can wait a little. Unnecessary slack imbedded in the estimates tends to create a false sense of security and often drives delayed start and slower progress, up to a point of running late.
Can we do anything about Hope Creep?
I am not optimistic about eliminating hope creep from our projects. In the end, it is about human nature. I do believe however that we can reduce the impact of hope creep on project schedule.
First of all, I like to make sure we all agree on a fundamental rule of “No surprises” from the very beginning of the project and regularly reaffirm it. We need to accept that problems and delays are inevitable, but we can deal with them only if they are known. Running late with a task is inevitable sometimes, but not telling about it is a real problem. All news are welcome – good and bad, and no messenger is punished for bringing a bad news. Focus on transparency, respect and joint problem solving is a powerful strategy against hope creep.
This strategy needs to be supplemented with an investment in project planning. Shorter tasks in the work breakdown structure, accurate and realistic task estimates with no hidden contingencies help reduce unnecessary stress and avoid student syndrome. It is also important to have accurate and timely updates of its progress when the task is under way. Otherwise we may find that most of our tasks are “99% complete 99% of the time”. I find that asking “how much is left to be done” instead of “how much of the task is completed” tends to result in more pragmatic evaluations of the actual task performance, thus bringing any problems to light much earlier, when we still can fix them.
The next post will be about Effort Creep….