Strategy Scope Creep

How many dead bodies remain in your organization due to scope creep?

Program and Project managers know the evils of strategy scope creep.  Rising costs, schedule delays, resource dilution, are a few of the many symptoms.  Strategy scope creep can be a disastrous impact on sustaining a company strategy.  Sustaining strategies are difficult to maintain with changes in personnel.  Each time leadership changes (Think US presidential elections every four years) most strategies are reset or substantially change.

Within rapid growth companies, overseas deployments, anywhere there is a consistent short-term change or addition of new personnel strategy scope creep should be a concern.  The best plan will deteriorate as new ideas, changes in original premises, expansion of goals creep into the original plan affecting execution.  Seldom are guidelines put in place to evaluate or manage the impact of changes on the original strategy.

Small projects are impacted the most.

Pictures of scope creep.
Everyone wanted pictures.

The smallest of projects or strategies can spiral out of control rapidly to where the outcome has little resemblance to the original goals.  This was often the case with our organization and others in Afghanistan.  Most of the military and civilians rotated in and out of the conflict zone every 9 -12 months.  Most projects take 12-36 months to complete.  Even the smallest of projects required 1-3 years to complete under the difficult circumstance in a war zone.  Consequently, almost all of the personnel involved would change or new ones came on board to continue operations.

Now Zad

Bazaar Scope Creep
New Bazaar Under Construction

One relatively small civil affairs project in Now Zad, Helmand Province, Afghanistan is a good example of strategy scope creep.

The USMC was very successful in establishing a security bubble around the community of Now Zad.  Originally a population of 60,000 the community inhabitants had dwindled to less than 10,000 due to the Taliban presence in the area.  With the USMC security, the community was rapidly coming back and once again thriving.  When I initially visited the community, we could walk through town with the Marines without wearing armor protection of heavy weapons.  Being able to walk freely along the streets of the town without the usual protection was very unusual and evidence of the Marines success in the area.

The Marines civil affairs unit initiated a project to rebuild the local bazaar that had been destroyed during the initial efforts to illuminate the Taliban presence in the community.  The bazaar consisted of dozens of stalls designed for small business owners to set up shop selling products to other residents.  Think of farmers’ markets all over the world.  In this case, the Marines wanted to rebuild the roof structure and walls of for a dozen stalls.  Of course, it would have to be better than what was previously there!  That is the way Americans approach projects around the world.

We were asked to assist due to their limited resources.  Could we work with USACE, USA Corps of Engineers, to come up with a plan and augment it with items such as tools or generators not included in the original assessment?  In comes more good intentions beginning the strategy scope creep.

The original strategy.

The original strategy was to restore the market and provide local businesses a place to sell products to residents in one centralized location.

After speaking with several of the shopkeepers one of the primary businesses displaced were several motorcycle repair shops.  Since 2 and 3 wheel motorcycles were the residences primary mode of transportation it caught the attention of our leadership and engineer.  The scope creeps started with let’s provide tools that can be shared by the multiple repair shops to utilize for repairing motorcycles.  That expanded to providing welding equipment and plans to enable them to expand into manufacturing the 3 wheel motorcycles for hauling goods and services.  Currently, the three-wheel motorized carts were imported or purchased from Kabul or Kandahar at great expense.

The idea certainly has merit but a considerable scope creep from the original strategy extending the project timeline considerably.

Scope creep starts with little changes.

Well in Now Zad
We needed a well which my friend was very proud of.

The location became an issue.  The district governor suggested it may be better to build the new bazaar on the outskirts of town near the new governor’s compound.  For those readers in the US remember the movement from inter cities businesses to malls in the suburbs.  Except in this case, most residents did not have transportation.  The new bazaar (mall) outside the village became the new shiny object and incredible scope creep from the original strategy.  The residents’ needs were no longer the priority of the project.  Creating something for the show seemed to more of a driver.

The scope creeps continued.  Expanding the project to include a motorcycle dirt track for racing would give the youth something to do and bring the community together!  This just illustrates how exaggerated off strategy scope creep can become.  Fortunately, the idea didn’t come to fruition.

It was bad enough that someone picked up on enabling the local community to build the three-wheeled motorcycles.  These types of vehicles were widely used by the Taliban to transport supplies and weapons.

More than a year after the initial project began I found myself back in Now Zad meeting with the district governor concerning remaining details.  This visit was quite different than my first visit.

Dead bodies related to other strategy changes.

Well digger
Myself with Afghan worker.

Before you read this paragraph I want you to know that my heart went out to these poor individuals that were just trying to make a living for themselves and their families several hundred miles away.  They had no idea the impact of policy strategy change by others would have on their lives.

The Marines were tasked with pulling back their direct involvement turning over security to local ANP, (Afghan National Police).  Landing by Osprey just outside the forward operating base I wore full armor walking the ½ mile to the FOB with a squad of Marines in security formation.  I didn’t carry a weapon but fell in lockstep with the fire team type formation so not to call attention to myself.  This was quite different than my entrance into the town 6 months earlier.

After settling in we were to visit the district governor’s office nearby the FOB. There was the buzz of activity as we entered his compound.  Afghan security personnel were coming in and out of the compound loading heavy weapons and ammunition into waiting vehicles.  There were numerous village elders in the compound which was very unusual.  It was obvious something bad had happened.   On the porch of the governor’s office were four dead bodies covered with blankets, their bare feet sticking out.  Greeting elders while we walked around the dead bodies into the governor’s office was a sobering experience.

Some things you never forget.

I distinctly remember and can picture in my mind the village elder that shook my hand.  Dressed in traditional garb (the same wore year around) with a heavy-weight sports type jacket and hat, he still wore sandals without socks.  the temperature was a balmy 34 degrees F!  His hand was gnarly and tough as a tree root from years of hard work.  The other image was the dead bodies on the porch of the governor’s offices.  blankets not large enough to cover their entire bodies left their bare feet sticking out in my direction.  I wanted to go over and cover their feet.  It sent a chill through my body to see their bare feet sticking out.

It seems the night before as the ANP took over the town’s entry checkpoints for the first time an Afghan stopped and offered them some drugs to settle their nerves.  Unknown to them the Afghan was Taliban.  A short time later additional Taliban showed up and beat each of the guards to death!  The four on the porch weren’t locals but from communities in Southern Helmand Province near our base at Camp Leatherneck.  The district governor pleaded with the Marines to utilize their helicopter transportation to return the victims to their local communities.  Regulations prohibited the Marines from accommodating the governor.  Traditional transportation from this remote area would take days if not weeks.

The construction site.

Not scope creep
Even the Marines had to be resourceful to find the right equipment. They used this antique for everything.

The construction of the bazaar had creeped out of town to the new building site.  We did visit the construction site which was progressing well.  Life goes on in a war zone.   Later the next morning around 3 AM we returned by helicopter south.  Temperatures were below freezing with no heat at the FOB made it one cold evening and flight back.  For once even the Marines had cold feet.

Business Sustainability Equipment
The scope creeps on the Osprey program was monumental.

It was several more months before I could finish up the project as close to the original goals as possible.  We had to airlift in a generator and no longer had anyone to train the local mechanics on the welding equipment.  Fortunately, Afghans are very resourceful and figured out how to put everything supplied to good uses.  Not long after the Marine drawdown in the country Now Zad again returned to Taliban rule.  Too far from the Capital in Kabul to be a priority.

Losses due to scope creep.

Strategy scope creep took place throughout the country with well-intentioned foreigners that always felt they knew best.  Every change of personnel resulted in expanding expectations and cost overruns.  Although impossible to estimate the cost of scope creep on projects in Afghanistan and Iraq could probably go a long way to paying down the national debt.

The same is true for most every organization in the world.  Controls have to be in place to control scope creep while remaining flexible to incorporate improvements in the original strategies.  The next three years in Afghanistan were spent fighting scope creep on almost every project.

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