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Have you ever heard someone say in a meeting “I don’t know why we’re doing this project in the first place?” Odds are, the meeting is being held to advance the project, not re-validate it. The person asking the question has now imposed their agenda on the group. They have forced scope creep [1].

Whenever meeting participants ask questions, they have shifted from the role of subject matter expert to the role of methodologist. They have forced scope creep. By diverting attention to ‘their’ question, the group follows ‘their’ agenda. Consequently, they risk not having enough time to complete the meeting deliverable.

Getting Groups to Focus Prevents Scope Creep

The hardest task to accomplish when leading a group of people is to get them to focus. Participants’ minds drift, twist, and become partially selective. When the right group of people assembles, they can accomplish any task at hand if the leader gets them focused. Yet they continue to drift, discuss and argue about issues that are not within the scope of the meeting. They impose their own scope creep.

Expert facilitation saves an incredible amount of time and money. For one, a well-prepared facilitator knows the scope of the meeting and puts it in writing. As a result, they do not allow someone to discuss topics that are not in scope. This includes re-justifying the project. When people argue about the validity or purpose of a project, the discussion is usually NOT within the meeting scope. Yet only a conscious facilitator can police scope creep carefully.

Remember these two secrets to prevent scope creep in meetings.

First, the session leader or facilitator needs to make the meeting scope clear when the meeting begins, as well as securing agreement from the participants about the meeting scope. Frequently, meeting scope limits include geography, duration, or situation—capturing only PART OF the project scope.

Secondly, the facilitator needs to know the precise question the group should be addressing. When the facilitator does not know the question, ANY answer is appropriate. Most meeting facilitators should focus on context before meetings rather than content, by knowing the right questions and the proper sequence to ask them. They cannot afford to ask a DUMB question (ie, Dull, Ubiquitous, Myopic, and Broad).

Scope Creep in Meetings is Costly

While it’s well-known fact that scope creep kills projects, scope creep also dramatically impacts the quality of meetings. Based on our research with a Fortune 100 company, more than 50 meetings are required to complete an ‘average’ project. Average computed as greater than USD$250,000 in value but less than $1.0 million total cost invested[2]. Much, if not most, of the budget is actually consumed by the labor value during meetings, and most budgets do not reflect costs of the customer’s time.  And that’s where scope creep begins.

Expert Facilitation Can Reduce the Amount of Total Meeting Time by Half

Most meetings stay partially focused and on topic. They do not spend an entire hours talking about Monday Night Football. Participants typically offer up some good content. The problem is, the meeting ends when the time is over, not when the meeting deliverable is complete and robust.  Therefore, the deliverable of many meetings becomes the most despicable deliverable of all — another meeting.

Meeting leaders cannot control scope if they are not fully aware of the scope of the project, the meeting, the agenda steps, and the question the group needs answered. While each scope is related, they remain discrete, and differences must be clear in the mind of the leader. However, when the meeting leader cannot articulate the scope, participants can freely talk about whatever comes to mind. Sound familiar?

While some contend that all too often participants get too ‘deep in the weeds’, we discovered that conversation in the opposite direction wastes more time. People talking about projects, programs, business unit objectives, and enterprise performance — all topics typically ‘out of scope’ for their specific meeting deliverable.

Scope Creep is the Opposite of Detailed Answers and Requirements

Unprofessional facilitators permit such discussion when they do not refine their questions. They typically ask broad questions when, in fact, they need detailed answers. They ask for the deliverable rather than aggregating the components that add up to create the deliverable.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say your group’s deliverable is a marketing plan. An untrained facilitator might begin by asking “What’s does the marketing plan look like?” Imagine the number of ways this question could be answered. Such broad, open-ended questions leave meetings wide open to scope creep. Rather, a professional facilitator would know, or have done her research beforehand, and understand that a marketing plan is a function of segmentation, targeting, positioning, media, message, etc., and thus a better question would be “What is the primary target audience for the product you’re trying to market?” A question specific enough to produce specific, measurable answers.

In addition, if the question were “What are our top three market segments?” (another good, precise question) a trained facilitator would not allow one or two people to divert the group into a discussion over social media outlets, as such content (while relevant at some other point in the process) would be out of the scope of the question at hand. (For more on how to handle open issues click HERE.)

In the aggregate . . .

By systematically addressing a series of questions, answers fold together to create the meeting deliverable.

As soon as participants start arguing over issues unrelated to the details required to support the specified deliverable (ie a specific marketing plan for a specific product) they are imposing scope creep, and putting the team at risk of failing to deliver in the amount of time allowable. The facilitator must stop the discussions unrelated directly to the deliverable.

Quite simply, to prevent scope creep in meetings, the facilitator needs to know the scope of the specific question being asked. If they don’t, people can talk about whatever they want.

scope creep

Understanding Scope Creep and Precision of the Question During Your Meeting

Consciousness of the Holarchy Helps Prevent Scope Creep

The holarchy chart illustrates the narrowing of scope, from the enterprise through the question being discussed in a meeting. The facilitator must provide precise questions that support completion of agenda steps and support completion of the meeting deliverable. When the facilitator does not know the right question to ask, all hell breaks loose, and rightfully so, scope creeps . . .  Do not let it happen to you. Also see our discussion specifically on the Holarchy for further explanation. And remember, consciousness comes before competence.

[1]The Project Management Institute’s PMBOK® Guide describes scope creep as “adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval” (PMI, 2008, p 440).

[2]Size definitions are never the same for all organizations, but nearly all define “moderate” as projects with a minimum threshold between $50,000 and $1,000,000 total investment.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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