Project Management

The Pitfalls of Trying to Hard: Gold Plating in Project Management

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The Pitfalls of Trying to Hard: Gold Plating in Project Management
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The Pitfalls of Trying to Hard: Gold Plating in Project Management

Have you ever had clients who fret and fuss over every detail? Just so you can sleep at night, you probably find yourself tending to their every need.

Or have you ever dealt with the fallout of a disappointed client?

None of this is ever any fun.

In order to avoid these scenarios, every seasoned project manager develops a compulsion to overcompensate.

The problem with going above and beyond, however, is that it leads to another danger zone, known as gold plating. Because in the world of project management, perfection means methodically punching away at a project, and delivering just what the clients requests. Nothing more and nothing less.

At first blush, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. How could striving to exceed customer expectations lead to more problems?

That’s what we’re going to cover in this post. As it turns out, everything that’s golden is not glittery. So if you want to improve your approach to project management, let’s take a look at the ins and outs of gold plating, as well as strategies for avoiding it.

Gold Plating Definition

Gold Plating: A Definition With Examples

Traditionally, gold plating is the practice of covering a less precious metal with a thin layer of gold. A pair of gold plated rings may look like they’re made from gold, but scratching below the surface reveals they consist mostly of copper.

Gold plating, then, is also a metaphor for presenting a shiny exterior in order to conceal something less desirable beneath the surface. A company may present a gold plated earnings report, when in fact its books are in disarray and it’s on the brink of bankruptcy.

Gold Plating Definition

In project management, gold plating means adding something to a deliverable that’s outside the original scope of the project. Here’s the standard project management definition:

Gold plating: The practice of incorporating features and improvements that go beyond a product’s agreed-upon characteristics. This is generally done to boost customer satisfaction.

It’s easy to envision how gold plating is desirable. At the beginning of a project, the expectations are laid out, and everyone understands the requirements and deliverables. However, the execution of a project gives rise to a variety of scenarios and conflicts. Maybe a team member becomes exuberant about a certain feature, and all on his own decides to embellish and add onto it. Or maybe the project isn’t proceeding so well, and the team wants to conceal poor workmanship with a few add-ons.

However, this practice of gold plating opens the door to new problems: additional risks, increased time and cost or a befuddled customer who doesn’t like the changes.

Examples of Gold Plating

Let’s look at a few examples of gold plating to get an idea of what it looks like in a project.

Take a bathroom remodel, for example. Maybe the original plan was to include one niche for soap in the shower. A contractor, concerned about pleasing the client, might decide to add an extra niche for shampoo bottles. However, the client may well be upset about this change, as it wasn’t in the original agreement. It could lead to an expensive scenario of having to re-do an entire wall of tiling.

Or in a software project, a team might decide to add a tutorial video to the log-in page. The client may be so pleased with the video that she wants a tutorial video on every page. Since this wasn’t in the original contract, the team is then pressured to perform this extra work at no pay.

Rather than exceeding customer expectations, gold plating is about being psychic and anticipating expectations the customer never even articulated. This can easily lead to misunderstandings and additional work.

In Contrast with Scope Creep

In Contrast with Scope Creep

Gold plating may sound a lot like scope creep. Both are similar in that they involve making changes to a project, and both lead to undesirable outcomes.

Notice, however, that gold plating is only about making one change to a project. However, scope creep refers to changes that affect all aspects of a project.

Here’s the project management definition of scope creep:

Scope creep refers to gradual changes in project scope that occur without a formal scope change procedure. Scope creep is considered negative since unapproved changes in scope affect cost and schedule but do not allow complementary revisions to cost and schedule estimates.

Although gold plating isn’t the same as scope creep, it can easily lead to it.

Let’s look at the bathroom remodel again. In order to spruce things up, say the designer decides to flank the bathroom mirror with sconces. Then, it turns out the homeowners like them so much, they want sconces added to other areas of the remodel as well, even though it was never part of the original agreement.

Adding the sconces started with just one change (gold plating), but it led to changes that increased the scope of the entire project, affecting its time and budget (scope creep).

The Problem with Gold Plating

The Problem with Gold Plating

Ideally, managing a project means meeting clearly defined requirements within agreed upon constraints, including a time frame and budget. Any changes to the requirements or scope follows a standard methodical procedure.

Gold plating ignores these processes and agreements, and in doing so introduces an assortment of problems into a project. Here’s a few of the possible effects of gold plating:

Introduces New Risks

At the beginning of a project, the team looks at all risks and develops a risk management plan that includes things like mitigating controls and a succession plan.

However, when a team makes an entirely unanticipated change, it assumes risks never before considered, with no plan to protect against them.

Requires Additional Time, Money and Resources

A project works within agreed-upon constraints, including time, money, risk and resources. Gold plating assumes additional time and resources that aren’t in the budget. For example, adding a functionality in a software project requires additional testing, time and costs. This means that another area of the project is neglected, or else the project exceeds its constraints.

Confuses the Team

When a project is poised for success, everyone, more or less, is working toward the same North Star. However, introducing random changes alters the focus of some team members. It becomes unclear where to place energy, and the team’s output and efforts become muddled.

Misleads the Client

Gold plating, even with the best intentions, gives the client something he never asked for. It means ignoring the contract and direct requirements and charting a new course. At its core, then, gold plating is dishonest. The client expects to receive what was agreed upon; altering this course is unethical and may well lead to legal snafus.

Leads to More Work

Even if an add-on looks simple, it may well lead to something else entirely. For example, say a team adds a feature that ends up not working. The team then has to spend time providing support–for a feature that wasn’t even required!
In sum, the best approach to a project is to reject the exuberance of an eager-beaver. Adopting a slow and steady approach wins the day.

The Allure of Gold Plating

The Allure of Gold Plating

If gold plating introduces so many problems, then why are teams enticed to engage in it? Here are a few of the perceived benefits of gold plating.

Meeting and Exceeding Expectations

This is the objective of every project manager, right? All too often “exceeding” sounds synonymous with providing a little extra. This line of thinking, as we see, gets teams into trouble. It can seem like an improvement to add a bonus, when in fact it introduces a host of problems.

In reality, meeting and exceeding expectations means taking an even keel approach. Providing honest work and consistent communication is the surest way to keep the client satisfied.

Creating a Glittering Distraction

Sometimes in a challenging project, the deliverable doesn’t look as “presentable” as the team might like. In order to conceal the rough edges, it’s tempting to fancy it up with a few extras.

But ultimately, the client understands what’s going on. Gold plating in the end comes across as an effort to conceal shoddy work. And that isn’t a recipe for developing a good business reputation or repeat service.

Gold plating is a little bit like dipping into a giant tub of french fries: on its surface it feels like a good idea. But before long it reveals itself to be nothing but a stomach ache.

Strategies to Avoid Gold Plating

Strategies to Avoid Gold Plating

Fortunately, gold plating can easily be avoided with these strategies.

Keep Teams Small

Gold plating is more likely to happen within large teams. A “design-by-committee” approach to a project leads to scenarios where no one is in charge and people make changes without following any procedures.

Ideally, a team never exceeds seven to nine members. When it becomes as large as ten, splitting the team into two ensures a commitment to excellence and quality.

Within a small team, only one or two people make decisions, and it’s easier to discuss potential changes with everyone.

Create a Strong Scope Document

A scope document lays out the parameters of a project. It includes its requirements, the deliverables and constraints around time, money, risk and resources. The scope document also discusses what won’t be included in the project, and assumptions around who is able to work and for how long.

Laying out expectations for everyone to see creates a strong antidote to gold plating.

Communicate Consistently

When teams communicate daily at a scrum meeting, and bi-weekly for retrospectives or wrap-ups, it allows everyone to air concerns and ideas. This way, everyone is abreast of new movements, and together the team discusses possible changes.

Follow a Change Management Process

Rather than gold plating changes into a project, following a procedure ensures that changes are carefully considered and beneficial. The objective of a change process is to make sure that the appropriate people oversee and approve the changes.

With a good procedure, the team communicates the change to a team lead or scrum master. Next, the leader submits the change request to the project manager, outlining the benefits, reason, cost, description and impact. The project manager is then responsible for assessing new risks and scope.

A Solid Gold Approach

A Solid Gold Approach

It really is ironic that trying too hard sometimes impedes your efforts.
Rather than “improve” a project through random add-ons, the best thing you can do for a customer is to deliver what they ask for. A team exceeds expectations through its quality of communication and service, not by adding “freebies” and “extras.”

Clear communication between the team and the client are key to minimizing incidences of gold plating.

If you’re managing a remote team, be sure to check out Teamly. This project management software makes it easy for teams to communicate continually, every single day.

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