Scope Creep: Winchester Mystery House Projects

There are some projects that I like to call, “Winchester Mystery House Projects.” For those of you who aren’t near San Jose, California, here’s the Winchester Mystery House.

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As the story goes, Sarah Winchester was the sole heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune in the late 1800s. She was convinced that she was haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles. A medium told her she could appease the spirits if she bought a fixer-upper house and never stopped working on it. Living in the chaos and noise of 24-hour-a-day building is what the medium suggested. So she did it.

Building ran 24 hours a day for 38 years. That’s not a typo. “The Sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens.” Rooms were built and rebuilt. Some stairs and doorways go nowhere.

You call it “scope creep.” When it gets bad, we call it “Winchester Mystery House.”

We’ve all had projects that just don’t seem to stick to their original timing, scope, tasks, or sometimes even intentions and goals. Projects that miss deadlines and just need a few more rounds of changes. You send the final version, but wait, we need this committee to review it, and we’ll get back to you with feedback.

When it feels out of control and dates just keep getting pushed out, that’s a Winchester Mystery House Project. The project that never seems to have an end. The project that SHOULD be broken or reorganized into more phases, but the client is SURE this all needs to be added to this phase… but didn’t tell you that ahead of time (like when you were writing the SOW).

Try telling a client their project will be the Winchester Mystery House if they insist on adding all of those new tasks to the current project or phase. That gets attention.

I find that clients are able to take this in the half-comedy way in which we mean it. They get the message and can smile with us at the idea of the house that was never done being built somehow being similar to their project. We’ve been able to solve this so well that we nearly never see Winchester Mystery House projects anymore.

How can an agency solve this?

You may not be able to save the project you’re struggling with now. But here are elements you can put into place at your agency for the future.

Reign in salespeople.

If your agency has traditional sales people, they need to make sure they are writing up non-vague proposals that have very clear boundaries. No contract should be so vague that a client thinks he doesn’t have to pay for extra work. I can’t tell you how many agencies have privately told me, “Well, if this takes longer, we just have to eat it.” You don’t have to.

Stop doing mini-rounds of revisions.

Some clients are hoping you’ll make “these” changes while they wait for feedback from another department or stakeholder. You don’t have to do that. Your documentation can say that a round of changes is one set of tasks done at once, and the client shouldn’t provide “consolidated feedback” until they have heard from everybody who has a say.

I’ve seen agencies afraid of the “preview” a stakeholder wanted before a presentation of a round of changes. The agency was sure the stakeholder would ask for more changes, thereby creating a “mini-round” that the contract didn’t say could cost extra. Open the door of vagueness and clients will happily walk through. You would too.

At Ptype, we charge by the hour for work. If a client wants 100 mini or full rounds of revisions, that’s fine by us; they’re paying for that time. We push for complete consolidated feedback, but sometimes, you just can’t get that in a timely fashion from everybody who is involved. There’s no way we’ll need to “eat it.” Extra rounds or mini-rounds might push the timing, but if the client is OK with it, then we’ll happy do more work and get paid to do it.

Stop sending things that say “final” when they don’t have final approval.

Sending something that says “final” that isn’t really final adds to frustration. If it says Round 3 or Round 4, people can say yeah, that’s what it was. When it says FINAL and then there’s Round 4, I’ve watched attitudes shift and be negative. It can also kill morale to see a folder with three different versions all called FINAL.

Save yourself the negative connotations a non-final FINAL round can have by numbering rounds. When the client approves and you are delivering that final version, THEN name it final.

Better contracts.

Make sure your clients are signing contracts. No handshake deals. Make sure the clear SOW is in the contract and the contract details what happens when a project changes or grows.

It’s better for everybody.

No surprises for you, none for the client. Setting expectations properly can help you avoid Winchester Mystery House projects.

Delta CX author | Customer Experience Strategist, Architect, Speaker, Trainer. “The Mary Poppins of CX & UX.” Learn more at DeltaCX.com and Pty.pe.

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