This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at evalacademy.com.
In most evaluation plans, we try to define scope. Defining evaluation scope means putting boundaries around things like:
Time – defining what timeframe of the initiative you will include in your evaluation, or how long you will be undertaking evaluation work
People – deciding which clients’ or stakeholders’ perspectives will be included, and which won’t
Components – clarifying which parts of a program or initiative to evaluate, and which to exclude
The scope of your evaluation project should be clearly documented in your evaluation plan. That documentation will be important throughout the life of the evaluation project. As an example, here is a scope statement from one of our recent evaluation projects:
The scope of this evaluation will vary between operational phases. Generally, the scope will be limited to activities related to this initiative from Red Deer and north in Alberta, although some alignment of evaluation activities with activities in southern Alberta may be incorporated. While past programs and systems inform the initiative, this evaluation will not investigate any of those previous programs or services. This evaluation plan addresses Phases II (April 2021 – September 2022) and III (October 2022 – March 2024).
All evaluation projects face limitations in resourcing and feasibility. This evaluation will include all patients and providers participating in the initiative. Data elements will include what can be reliably reported by patients and providers through surveys and through patient interviews, as well as data captured in the pharmacy information platforms. All activity between project initiation (March 2021) and project close (March 2022) is within scope for this evaluation. The perspective of others in the healthcare system, including family physicians and health authority staff, are considered out of scope for this evaluation. Patient health outcomes are not in scope for this evaluation.
Ideally, our evaluation projects would proceed as planned. But as all project managers know, sometimes things change. Actually, most of the time, things change!
In some situations, our evaluation approach can be modified to adapt to the changing context, but in others, we have to say no to scope creep.
What is scope creep?
The term “scope creep” comes to us from the project management world. Definitions about, but essentially scope creep is when the project work begins to extend, or “creep,” beyond what was originally agreed.
Many evaluators will have received requests from clients to add in a thing or two here and there after the evaluation project is already underway – maybe another data source has surfaced, such as a survey run by a partner organization that seems relevant. Maybe they would like to add another stakeholder group to be interviewed. Or maybe they would like to include activity data from the last fiscal year, despite originally wanting to focus only on the current year. Some scope creep requests relate to reporting – an extra presentation here, a customized sub-report there.
Or perhaps it’s the evaluator that wants to expand the scope. You may have identified a new opportunity to strengthen your evaluation project by incorporating a new analytic approach, or early findings suggest there is merit in pursuing an additional line of questioning. There are times when expanding the original scope of an evaluation project can open up important insights that may have seemed inaccessible during the planning phase.
But beware! Scope creep isn’t always so obvious. It can creep up slowly, and before you know it, you’ve added a couple of survey questions, provided a third draft of a slide deck, and interviewed management staff that you hadn’t planned to.
What to ask yourself when you discover scope creep
When you see scope creep happening, take a quick pause to reflect. You might need to say to your client or team: “Let’s just take a few minutes to see where this fits in our project scope.” Referring to the scope statement defined in your evaluation plan will support the conversation or introspection that follows. Whether you are acting as an external evaluation consultant or as an internal evaluator, there are a few questions you can ask to help make the “to scope creep or not to scope creep” decision.
What is motivating this request?
Are there ethical implications to this new task?
Does this new request add value?
Do we have access to the data source required for this request?
Do we have the time to complete this extra task?
Is there room in the budget? Or, can additional funds be found?
There’s no easy algorithm for making your choice about project scope. Here are a few considerations that can help you make the best decision.
When should you indulge in scope creep?
We can’t anticipate everything when we’re designing an evaluation plan, and there is a very real possibility that a meaningful opportunity to create a better evaluation will arise. If the option to strengthen your evaluation approach arises and:
it is ethical,
it doesn’t unfairly burden any individual or group,
it is in alignment with the overall purpose of the evaluation,
it can be done well, and
it is feasible within the timelines and budget allocated…
then go ahead and creep! Your original evaluation plan doesn’t need to restrict innovation—one of the points we’ve made about evaluation project management is that you shouldn’t live and die by the plan.
When to avoid scope creep
On the other hand, some project expansions are best avoided. If the potential expansion appears to:
be motivated by a desire to bring a more “positive” conclusion,
be too far outside the original purpose,
have no ready, reliable data source,
place too much burden on a particular individual or group, or
require more investment than it’s worth,
then maybe you need to push back. And to be very practical, sometimes you just can’t accommodate new requests because of important deadlines or budget limitations.
If you indulge scope creep when any of those red flags are present, you run the risk of damaging relationships or delivering a late or sub-par evaluation product.
If you do decide to expand your scope, make sure you document that decision (Remember the JCSEE Program Evaluation Standard on Evaluation Documentation?). Savvy project managers will have a change log to note any changes and their reasoning. You should probably update the evaluation plan, noting the date of the scope change, and share with the team. There may even be a place to include the rationale in your evaluation report, perhaps in an appendix.
We hope these points are helpful the next time you need to make a decision about scope creep.
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