Beware the big idea: Effort vs. scope—A story by Brett Harned

Brett Harned

Last week, author Elizabeth Harrin shared her story about the importance of visibility and workload planning. This week, Digital PM Summit founder, podcaster, and consultant, Brett Harned talks about effort vs scope, and why it’s crucial to get input from the right person.

You can read all the stories in our latest eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager. Download your free copy here.


I was working with a team to redesign a Fortune 500 company’s website. As a creative team, it was always our job to sort out business and user goals in order to propose ideas that would satisfy both. In this instance, we did just that—we did it with our clients during an interactive workshop.

The energy was high, and the ideas were flowing. Nothing discussed in the workshop was positioned to be “set in stone,” so discussing blue sky ideas was fine for me as the PM, even if I was worried about the project scope. As a project manager, I’d never get in the way of a good idea. But I’d definitely be sure that it was executable within our scope and timeline. Or, at least I’d try.

The ideas we came up with were the kind of design solutions that would change the way this company—and eventually the industry—presented its product.

Fast forward a week, and I’m with my team in a conference room discussing final solutions to present. The “big idea” was front and center, and it was exciting. We discussed how the feature would work, how it might be designed, and how we’d approach it. The problem was, one of our developers—the one who would eventually build the front end of the site—was out of the office for two weeks.

I questioned the effort vs. the scope. I took the word of the team, who said it was doable. They were wrong.

When that developer returned to the office, she looked at the designs and said, “This is really cool. Did the client approve additional scope?”

My heart sank to my stomach. “No, we discussed the approach while you were away, and the team said we’d be okay.”

That did not make her happy—at all. And I couldn’t blame her for that. I’ve seen plenty of website design projects fail when they hit the development stage, simply because the details hadn’t been discussed. But I’d already learned that lesson and I got ahead of it. 

Or at least I thought I did.

So I asked her to help me to estimate the effort. We sat down and it was more than double what we had scoped. I had to address it with the client before we went any further.

I prepared myself for the call, and I was ready to give my client three options:

  1. They pay for the additional scope
  2. We revise the design and table the big new idea
  3. We work with the client’s talented development team to split the scope

I felt pretty good about these options and I was ready to present them. 

I called the client, shared the news, and apologized. He yelled at me. Actual yelling! I did my best to calm him down, and shared my solutions. 

Lesson learned: Get input from the right person

Thankfully that worked, and we ended up building the feature together. But all I could think was that it could have been avoided if I didn’t take the word of the team and waited for the person actually doing the work to weigh in.

Does this story resonate with you?

Discover more in our eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager, where PM practitioners, authors, and agency insiders share the stories that defined their careers—and the lessons they learned along the way.

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Download the eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager

Meet Brett Harned

Brett Harned is one of the founding voices of the growing digital project management community. He launched the Digital PM Summit in 2012, and over the past decade has since hosted and spoken to audiences globally. His first book Project Management for Humans was published in July 2017, and his podcast Sprints and Milestones launched in April 2018. His wealth of successful online classes, a YouTube series, and numerous bylines further underscore his experience in digital PM consulting.

He applies his breadth of knowledge and experience to help clients solve complex challenges around people, processes, and culture as an independent consultant, and with Loupe Collective. Brett served as Vice President of Project Management at award-winning web design agency Happy Cog and as a senior PM at global digital agency Razorfish. As a project manager, strategist, and consultant, he’s led capital campaigns, managed enterprise website redesigns, and produced new iOS and Android products for Zappos, MTV, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pfizer, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Harvard University.