What Is Scope Creep? And How Does It Impact Your Project Management?

Janelle Lacomb

Many people in the project management industry are familiar with the dreaded term “scope creep”. For those of you not well-versed in the terminology of project management, here’s what scope creep means…

What is Scope Creep?

If a project isn’t properly defined to begin with, there might be last minute, unavoidable changes to the scope of a project. This is termed as scope creep.

If you have a plan, scope creep is what happens when that outline doesn’t quite go as planned. Maybe the client requested extra work not in the original proposal, or maybe they changed an objective entirely. Regardless of the reason, the project has taken a different path that may very well affect the budget and deadline.

Here’s a Scope Creep Example

Luci is the project manager over a team at Company A. Madeline from Company B hires Company A to create an ad campaign that includes one radio commercial, one print ad for the local newspaper, and one print ad for a magazine featuring local companies. Luci and Madeline agree on a schedule, budget, and deadline, and Luci’s team gets to work.

One month into the project, Madeline contacts Luci and says that instead of a radio ad, Company B would like to run a television ad. Luci agrees to make the change and lets her team know about the new requirement.

Two weeks later, Madeline contacts Luci again and says that Company B would like to include a coupon on their print ad for the local magazine. The project is already behind schedule and over budget because of the television ad, but Luci agrees to take on this new change as well. On the day of the deadline, Madeline wants to know why the project is not completed on time. Luci and her team have just been victims of scope creep.

Keep in mind that some creep is to be expected, no matter how perfectly the project is planned. However, to keep your project on track, there are some easy steps you can take ahead of time to prevent scope creep from taking over.

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How To Prevent Scope Creep

1. Document all requirements

The most important part of beginning a successful project is understanding exactly what the client requires. This includes milestones, deliverables, budget, and timeframe. Document everything and have everyone involved sign off on it. Make sure that everyone is on the same page about these requirements and understands every part of the contract completely before signing.

2. Have a change control protocol in place

Change is a natural part of life, and it’s no different with work projects. Small, reasonable changes that don’t affect the entire scope of the project are acceptable and sometimes necessary, but you should have a plan in place in the case of changes that affect the budget or deadline (you can find an example here).

First, it is important to identify who will oversee the approval or rejection of any proposed changes. Will it be up to one individual, a small committee, or the whole project team? Establishing who is in charge is important for your team and your client, as it expresses that you are prepared for any changes that may occur and that you will not be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous client. Your client should be informed of the protocol up front and should be aware of any budget or deadline changes that may occur. Transparency is crucial to creating a mutual understanding among all parties.

3. Make a clear schedule

Outlining every step of the project makes it easier to identify if and when scope creep begins. Keeping a close eye on all activity and making sure that your team is on track is the easiest way to keep any discrepancies at bay. Compare your schedule to the original proposal and ensure that everyone on your team is in agreement regarding deadlines on milestones and deliverables. Minor tweaking to a schedule is normal, but if it gets out of hand, refer your client to your change control protocol and act accordingly.

4. Verify everything with your client (internal or external)

This may go without saying, but making sure your client is on board with your plans is paramount to successful completion of the project. Every detail of the project should be verified before work begins and again regularly as your team works. Show the schedule and keep them up to date with any new developments along the way. Communication is vital throughout the entire process.

5. Break the project down

Breaking the project down into small, digestible portions is a good way to keep everyone on track. Again, as each portion is complete, touch base with the client to make sure everything is still going swimmingly for both them and your team. Address any concerns anyone may have and discuss what that means for the scope of the project.

6. Keep your team motivated

Keeping your team happy always makes things run more smoothly. Team members who feel fulfilled by their work and who feel they can be open with ideas and suggestions are team members who truly care about the work they produce. Establish an open-door policy so that your team members know they can always speak their mind and ask questions as needed. Having everyone working as a well-oiled machine reduces the chance of miscommunications happening and mistakes being made.

7. Avoid gold plating

Gold plating refers to the practice of adding extra features to the end result without the client’s consent. While this is generally done to please the client, it is not considered a best practice. There are two important reasons for this. First, the client may not approve of the change and may request for the project to be redone to their specifications. In this case, it is not generally acceptable to require the client to pay for the extra time to make the necessary changes since they did not ask for those changes to be made in the first place. Second, this sets a precedent to the client that any future projects may also include that extra value at no charge to them, which could lead to unscrupulous clients taking advantage of you and your team.

So, you’ve followed all of our advice to prevent scope creep, but despite your best intentions, the project has started to take on a life of its own. What’s a project manager to do when the creep starts creeping in?

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How To Beat Scope Creep

1. Give an estimate

The easiest way to stop creep in its tracks is to answer major change requests with “Would you like an estimate for that?”. This lets the client know that you are willing to take on these changes, but they will not be done for free. There are three different responses you can expect after offering an estimate.

Typical Estimate Responses:

  • “Never mind, I don’t want to pay more.”

These clients did not expect there to be an additional expense incurred with the changes they proposed, and decide to leave the project proposal as is.

  • “Sure, give me an estimate.”

These clients understand that their change may be more costly and take more time and are willing to pay more for the desired result.

  • “I thought that was included.”

These clients are generally genuine in their confusion. They may believe that certain major changes are included in their contract at no additional cost. In these cases, another look should be taken at the contract to be sure each aspect is explained and understood thoroughly.

2. Tell them you can’t make the deadline

There is no shame in telling the truth, and in this case, it is best for both the project team and the client. Being realistic about the deadline shows the client that it is important to you and your team to get the project completed on time, while also expressing that their changes will incur additional time and, in turn, additional expense in work hours and (possibly) materials.

3. Refer to your change control protocol

When in doubt, check the paperwork. Review it with the client and go over exactly what is and isn’t included in the original proposal. For changes that go beyond the scope, break out your change control process and discuss with your client exactly what their changes will mean for the scope of the project.

4. Don’t be afraid to say no

If the request seems unreasonable (even with an expanded budget) or just not feasible for your team, apologize to the client and explain to them why you are unable to take on the changes. If possible, offer to begin a new project proposal after the current one is complete.

5. Be firm

Once you’ve established the scope of the project and what changes necessitate your change control process, don’t back down from your agreement. Some clients may try to get you to bend the rules for them, but this sets a dangerous precedent for future projects with that client. Be fair, firm, and, most of all, consistent. When your clients know exactly what to expect from your project team, you can rest assured knowing that everyone is on the same page.

Conclusion

You may remember your grandmother saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. (Wait…you haven’t heard that before? It’s for real.)

This old saying can be applied to more than just health. Taking steps to prevent scope creep is a vitally important part of planning a project.

Budgeting, scheduling, and, most importantly, having the cooperation and understanding of everyone involved can mean the difference between a successful project and one that falls victim to scope creep. A happy client is a repeat client, so keep the creep at bay and enjoy successful business relationships.