How to Manage E-Learning Project Scope Creep

Scope creep is the worst. It’s something that happens with large, collaborative projects when a project’s requirements aren’t well-defined, well-documented, or controlled.

For e-learning projects, scope creep happens most often during the design and development phases of the course authoring process. This is when subject matter experts (SMEs) and project stakeholders contribute content or weigh in on the products of your design work—storyboards, prototypes, and alpha/beta releases of the course.

What seems like just a few changes at first quickly snowballs into an avalanche of redesign work that leaves you feeling confused, frustrated, and rushed.

If scope creep sounds like standard operating procedure in your environment, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news: Scope creep isn’t an inevitable part of e-learning course development. In fact, it’s something you can mostly avoid with just a few basic project management moves. The bad news: If you don’t see a project manager on the team, guess who’s it?

(It’s you.)

Not an experienced e-learning project manager? Don’t panic. With these pointers we’ll get you up to speed in no time flat.

Kick-Off the Project with a Project Team Meeting

Taking some time at the beginning to get everyone on the same page is a great way to get your project off to the best possible start. One good way to build alignment across the project team is to hold a kick-off meeting, either face to face or virtually. You’ll want to invite your project’s SMEs, stakeholders, and other contributors and then lead everyone through a discussion of things like the project’s goals, team member responsibilities, and milestones.

Kick-off meetings are also a good opportunity for you to explain your design and development process to the project team and show them examples of your work that may be relevant to the project. This move may seem a little showy, but it serves two important purposes:

  1. It gives you a way to establish your credibility and demonstrate your e-learning expertise.
  2. It gives the team members, many of whom may have no prior e-learning or training experience, something tangible to reference as you discuss specific deliverables.

Then, Let Everyone Else Do the Talking

Feeling a little intimidated at the thought of leading a kick-off meeting? Don’t sweat it! Project management pros know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Pro PMs usually take some time ahead of kick-off meetings to script out their talking points and prepare a short list of open-ended questions.

Why “open-ended” questions? Because using questions like these gives you a way to delicately bring up topics that could eventually open the door to scope creep.

For instance, when I lead a kick-off meeting, I like to ask open-ended questions to help nail down learning objectives, project roles and responsibilities (more on that in a moment), timing for key milestones, budget, who the audience is, and what kinds of technology requirements we may need to consider for reaching that audience. I also like to ask questions to help determine the level of creative freedom I have for transforming source content to meet the objectives.

Not sure what to ask? We’ve got your back. David Anderson has shared this fabulous, free download—a list of project kick-off questions to get you started.

And what if something arises during the meeting that threatens to derail the project before it’s even started? Get out in front of potential breakdowns by calling a follow-up meeting or letting the project stakeholder step in and re-evaluate the project’s goals and requirements. A little time invested in trade-off conversations now can save everyone a lot of heartache later!

After the Kick-Off Meeting

No matter how well the kick-off meeting goes and how much preparation and project planning you do, you’ll probably still hit a few snags along the way. Take heart: project snags don’t necessarily mean that you’re a lousy project manager.

While problems aren’t entirely avoidable, one way you can minimize the hiccups is to share the kick-off meeting outcomes with the team so everyone has the definitive record of the project’s scope.

Document the Meeting Outcomes

Having a record of the decisions you and the project team reached during the kick-off meeting gives you tools for managing or avoiding scope creep later on. With just a few basic project management tools, you can keep better track of the key players and, most importantly, the agreed upon requirements and scope. This documentation can also help to inform your process and help you hold others accountable for their contributions to the project.

A few tools to consider, include:

  • A simple project plan: No need to get fancy! Most folks find that a simple Excel spreadsheet or Word document does the trick. If you’d rather not create something from scratch, grab this free project agreement, created by Jeanette Brooks for documenting important project details, such as the learning objectives, deliverables, and success measures.
  • A timeline or schedule: Many folks opt to include a timeline into their project plan document, while others use a separate method to keep track of key milestones and deliverables. Whatever approach you use, having a clear record of the agreed upon deliverables and timeline will help keep you and the project team on task.
  • An accountability matrix: Sometimes, you may run into conflicts between SMEs that require a decision-maker to intervene. Establishing up front who’s accountable for what and at what level of involvement gives you a clear escalation path when issues arise. Never used or seen an accountability matrix? No problem. Check out this handy example shared in the community by Holly MacDonald.

Throughout the Project

Nailing the kick-off and the follow-up is only part of your Project Management role. To really be successful, you need to communicate with the project team throughout your process. Keeping everyone informed is one way to ensure that all of the alignment you established in the kick-off meeting stays in place as you move forward.

Here are a couple of pointers for keeping the lines of communication open:

  • Most of us agree: we have way too many meetings! If you’re looking for a great way to keep everyone in the loop without setting up yet another meeting, consider using a tool like Articulate Review. Articulate Review brings more transparency to the course development process and makes it easy for SMEs and contributors to see the latest version of the course along with each other’s feedback. This puts changes into context in a way that everyone can see, minimizing back and forth and identifying potential problems before they result in project delays. For more details on how Articulate Review can accelerate your course development process, check out this helpful article.
  • Have a request for changes that may impact the timeline? Bring the rest of the project team, or at least the project stakeholders, into the loop so everyone can agree that the change is worth the risking the target for.

Summary and Resources

Looking for more tools and project management guidance? Look no further than E-Learning Heroes! Here are some helpful articles and resources to help you sharpen your project management skills in a jiffy.

Feeling like an e-learning short-order cook? Not convinced you’ve got what it takes to manage scope creep? Share your challenges with us by leaving a comment or posting a discussion.

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Kurt von Ahnen