On September 3, 1846 the planet Neptune, which is not visible to the unaided eye, was discovered, but the way it was discovered is what fascinates me. After the discovery of Uranus in 1781, its observed orbit wasn’t the same as its predicted one. Some at the time speculated that Newton’s law of universal gravitation either didn’t work, or worked differently at such great distances from the Sun.[i] However, three mathematicians believed that Uranus’ orbit was being influenced by an as-of-then undiscovered planet farther out in the solar system, and independently calculated where such a body might be located. Johann Gotfried Galle, using Urbane Jean Joseph Verrier’s calculations, went looking for it with a telescope, and found it only one degree off from its calculated position.[ii]
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
One of the reasons I find this astrology story fascinating has to do with its implications in Project Management Science, along the lines of how we receive and interpret apparent contradictions in the way our projects’ performance unfolds. In a sense, when we freeze our cost, schedule, and (to a lesser extent) scope baselines, we are quantifying the expectations of our projects, and use those parameters to predict where they will be at their completion. When projects come in late, or over budget, there naturally arises a need to know the causes, for educational, economic, or even legal purposes, and the nominal record for ascertaining these causes is the Change Control Log, along with its attendant Baseline Change Proposals/Requests (BCPs/BCRs). Of course, the most commonly-held reasons for PM difficulties include:
- Poor original estimates
- Scope creep (informal, client-induced increases to the scope baseline, not reflected in the other two)
- Contingency event (specifically, in-scope, uncosted)
- An element of vagueness in the scope baseline that allows the contractor to pursue an end inconsistent with the customer’s expectations
- …or poor performance.
Each of these has a nominal response associated with it, which are not appropriate for the others. For example, if some customer representative has verifiably authorized scope that was not included in the original baseline, but did not do so formally, the solution would be to capture that scope, estimate its cost and duration, and process a BCP to update the appropriate baselines. However, this remedy is clearly inappropriate if the contractor has performed poorly. And yet, these causal factors and their appropriate responses have been around for decades, if not longer, which raises the question: Why does the whole change control process tend to be contentious, rather than fairly standard, automatic, and anodyne?
Here’s where the seasoned PMs realize that there’s something else going on here, something that’s not visible to the unaided eye. Consider one of my oft-used axioms, Affordability, Quality, Availability: pick any two. As discussed in this space two weeks ago, in most contracts Availability is already set in stone, since most projects have a contractual start date, if not finish date. Affordability is also set, since contracts are usually awarded on the basis of which contractor submitted the lowest bid that appeared to accomplish the scope. With Quality the most often pushed-aside aspect of the three, we have the following unseen forces pulling on the observable aspects of change control, in the same order from the list above:
- Estimators are often pressured to turn in lower cost and shorter schedule estimates, since these are the parameters that usually determine which organization wins the contract in the first place.
- Contractors are almost always under immense pressure to keep their customers happy, making it difficult to insist that any change or recommended improvement be brought in to the baselines formally, especially if the change is presented as trivial, or part of some form of normally expected (yet undocumented!) performance.
- Things get left out of the original baselines for a reason, and that reason is that nobody is expecting those things to happen, at least not with an “80% confidence interval.”
- If Affordability and Availability are already set, the only recourse left to the contractor is to target the minimally-acceptable level of Quality, as discussed two weeks ago.
- Poor performance is supposed to be paid out of any profit or award fees that would otherwise go to the contractor, leading to significant pressure to never acknowledge this as the primary causal factor of PM difficulties.
With all of these not-readily-apparent forces pushing and pulling on the supposedly frozen baseline, small wonder that all of the ensuing friction erupts in the only available venue, the change control process. This being the case, the question posed in this blog’s title should probably be turned around. It shouldn’t be “why is change control so contentious?”
It should be, how is it that it’s not more so?
[i] See Breitman, Daniela, Today in science, Discovery of Neptune, https://earthsky.org/human-world/today-in-science-discovery-of-neptune.