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When the Client Violates the Terms of the Project Agreement

You have just come from a frustrating meeting with your project client. When the project started, you asked the client how long his people would need to review deliverables and return them to your team. When he asked for a week, you cautioned him to be conservative because the deliverables would be complex, but he assured you that he would need just one week. Therefore, when you built your project plan, you made sure to include two weeks for each of the five deliverables that required client approval—one week for the initial review and one for revisions and confirmation of the changes.

However, the project started and you recently submitted the first deliverable for review, but it was three weeks before you got it back. When you met with him to discuss the delay, his first response was a selection of sentences from the following set (add your own if you wish):

And when you told him, politely of course, how important it is to meet the schedule, he gave one of the following replies:

And when you objected that three weeks would blow the schedule, he gave the final comment:

What can you do? Adding two weeks for each of the five deliverables will extend your project by ten weeks and there's no way to recover that time and still deliver a quality product while retaining the sanity of your team. Your answer: issue a constructive scope change.

"Constructive" in this context is a legal term. Informally, it means "This is not the case, but for purposes of the law, we're going to assume it is." A more formal definition is "That which exists, not in fact, but as a result of the operation of law. That which takes on a character as a consequence of the way it is treated by a rule or policy of law, as opposed to its actual character." http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/constructive.

Probably the best known example of the use of the constructive form is constructive dismissal. If I want to get rid of an employee, but I don't have grounds to fire him, I might switch him to less desirable hours of work, give him extra responsibilities, assign him to tasks I know he hates, or put him under a supervisor that hates him. If I succeed in making his job so onerous that he resigns, this is ideal: I got rid of him and I don't even have to pay severance.

However, if he consults an employment attorney, I am in trouble because, by so severely altering the conditions of his employment—presumably without a sound business reason for doing so—the court can deem that I have engaged in constructive dismissal. In effect, I fired him, even though he was not actually fired. Since constructive dismissal is equal in character to real dismissal, he now has a case for wrongful dismissal.

A constructive scope change, therefore, is not a real scope change: There are no changes to the work, no modifications to the project's product, no additional requirements. But because the client violated the agreed terms and conditions of the project and the schedule will slip as a result, you can deem that a scope change has in fact occurred and that it will extend the project schedule by ten weeks and the project budget by however much the extra time will cost.

Unlike all other types of scope change, you, as the project manager issue and approve constructive scope changes and make the resulting revisions to the plan. These changes do not require the approval of the client.

Obviously, this is strong action to take and not something that you will do arbitrarily or without trying to resolve the issue normally. One of your tools should be to re-do the plan as if the scope change were in place and show the client the effect of the delay, but if the client remains intransigent, the project budget and schedule have to change.

What types of conditions would lead you to issue a constructive scope change? Here are a few examples to which most project managers could add:

All of these represent assumptions that you have adopted when you built your plan, but there is one large problem: Before you can initiate a constructive scope change, the client must have previously agreed to the conditions that were violated. In our example, if the client says, "I never agreed to a one-week turnaround" and you have no documentation to counter that claim, you have no basis for action. Therefore, during the planning stage, there are three steps you must take:

  1. Identify and quantify any client activities that could affect the plan.
  2. Document the activities.
  3. Get client sign-off.
Identify and Quantify Client Activities

What factors could cause your project to slip because of poor client performance? Following is a partial list of such activities that I have quantified. Of course, the actual numbers will vary depending upon the requirements of the project.

Of course, you cannot define these commitments alone. You have to consult with your client and get his oral approval for each of them. Only then can you build your plan using the numbers that you and he have agreed to.

Document the Activities

These commitments will, of course, factor into your project schedule. However, some organizations, particularly consulting companies working on fixed-price contracts, do not allow clients to see their plans. If this is the case for you, then you can document them in the project charter, a document that the client must review and approve. The relevant section within the charter could be labeled "Client Responsibilities."

Get Client Sign-Off

Now it is time for the client to sign. Since you have discussed and agreed to all of these activities with him, this should not be contentious. However, some clients are resistant to signing anything. Before you can insist, you need to find out why the client is hesitating, and there are only two reasons:

  1. The client disagrees with one or more provisions of the document
  2. The client just doesn't like to sign things.

If the reason is disagreement ("I've thought about this and I think we need more time to review deliverables"), then get agreement with him on what the time should be, then tell him you'll modify the plan and that it will probably push the final date out by (say) five weeks.

If the reason is sign-o-phobia, you have two choices. The first is an "assumed agreement" in which you send him a note saying something like, "The attached document reflects our discussions. If you disagree with any of its provisions, please let me know by {date}. If I haven't heard from you by then, I will assume that you agree with it and will proceed with the project accordingly."

Your second choice, which is appropriate if you are dealing with a client that has a reputation as confrontational, litigious, or aggressive, is to state that until the document is signed by someone in authority, you will not proceed with the project and, once it has been signed, you will modify the plan to reflect the delay.


Now that you have the client's agreement on the terms and conditions of the project, and, in particular, agreement on his responsibilities, you are suitably armed to deal with slippages caused by a violation of that agreement. How you deal with the situation—cooperatively or confrontatively—will depend upon a number of factors, but without the groundwork, you are at the mercy of a client who dismisses all problems, no matter what their cause, as yours.


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