Scope creep is bad, here’s how to handle it


14 min read

A term that strikes fear into the heart of every project manager. A straightforward project that creeps slowly, creeps consistently, and has suddenly crept beyond reason. Arguments on both sides, rising costs, provision of staff, pushed deadlines, project collapse – not good.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Whilst scope creep is possible, even in the best-run project, it doesn’t have to be a complete disaster, as long as you can see the signs early. Knowing the potential causes and managing them will keep your project on track, and help you keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep is the term project managers use to describe the uncontrolled growth of a project that comes from additions and changes. It happens for a variety of reasons, but it happens. Even the best-laid plans of mice and men are susceptible to change, and the web and software design and development industry is affected more than most. If you are a project manager it is what keeps you awake at night, the drip, drip, drip that ends in flood damage.

It will happen to you, sometime, somewhere down the line for sure. What can be done to avoid it? In truth very little, perhaps the questions we should be asking are what causes it, and what can we put in place to catch these causes early and control and limit their effect on the overall project.

Perhaps we should also look at the further question, is scope creep really something that should be giving you nightmares or can you turn it to your advantage?

What are the causes of scope creep?

Firstly, not knowing the true scope.

1. Unclear initial scope

One of the rather peculiar problems especially in the field of web design and development is that the client is often unclear about what they actually want in terms of vision. They kind of know what they want, but have difficulty explaining it.

Without a clear vision and expectations of what needs to be achieved then it is inevitable that the scope is ill-defined. Estimates and quotes turn into educated guesswork. The client doesn’t think in the same way as the project manager, they see the goal, the destination not the journey. As long as the final destination is arrived at they see the choice of route as your issue.

This is the earliest and most fundamental cause of scope creep.

2. Lack of detailed scope

The scope detail is the skeleton that everything hangs from. The initial planning stage needs time and open discussion. This is not the time to rush and cut corners to get things rolling. If you start rolling down the wrong hill, you’ve got some almighty pushing to do just to get back to the start point.

Without clarity and objectives, without exact answers to fundamental questions, without knowing the required functionality and deliverables, you are asking for trouble. You may as well out a welcome mat out for scope creep to come knocking. This is the stage to work out the complexity, assign timelines and deadlines, work out tasks, and resources.

Go over the detail, discuss the detail, verify the detail, the devil is in the detail.

If you’ve got the initial scope and detailed scope in black and white, then you’ve half won the battle. You have the control, now it’s time to exercise your management tools.

3. Poor communication

Poor communication in any team activity is the tiny scratch that can turn into a festering wound.

You need to communicate clearly and efficiently with all members of your team and with your clients. It’s easier said than done. Sometimes workers are working remotely, even in different countries, sometimes getting good communication from the client is like getting blood from a stone, sometimes there are misunderstandings and breakdowns in the line of communication.. Yeah, yeah…. No excuses – communicate clearly, communicate often. Keep everyone on the same page, heading in the right direction – this is what your role is.

4. Lack of scope management

As the project manager, the scope creep potential starts and stops with you. All requests come through you and at the end of the day, they are yes or no decisions. Are these changes and additions within the original scope? Are they doable? Are they manageable? Are they sensible? Or do you need to renegotiate the deal?

It is understandable that changes will have to be made, small requests, mini add-ons. You need a process, a habit, to control these requests. Without a system in place, the creep has crept and you’re left fighting a wildfire that’s got out of control.

You need a centralized process for recording and managing requests. You need centralized control over all requested changes, don’t let the client and develop go rogue. You need control over your team – no unrequested features added on a whim to impress. Everything goes through you, you are the pivot.

Once you’ve established a system, stick to it, good habits work well when everybody gets used to them. Don’t make exceptions.

5. Unrequested features

Features that the client hasn’t asked for, designed to impress, to ice the cake, gold plating is the term. Developers start adding features, maybe good ones, ones that add value – it doesn’t matter. The only people who should be making decisions about what to add are the decision-makers.

Every little thing takes time and adds to the creep. A new feature here and there may take minutes but further down the line can add much more time. Think of the project as a whole, control your team.

6. Underestimating the complexity of the project

Any project that is too long or too complicated is going to have issues with scope creep, there is an inevitability to it. This needs to be built into your quote.

Complex projects take longer, deadlines are harder to predict and therefore meet, longer projects can involve other issues such as stakeholder holidays, illness, leave – all of these things will limit your day-to-day flow.

The more complicated the project, the more likely there are to be additions and changes. For a start, you are doing more things, so there are more things that can change. Secondly, as the project takes longer, the client has more time to add things.

There is more chance of having multiple stakeholders – this can lead to problems of final decision making and other communication difficulties.

7. Too many stakeholders

With multiple stakeholders, it is more likely that each person will have a different idea of the direction of the project. Even with just two stakeholders, there will be differences of opinion, different styles of communication, different levels of engagement. If you try to please everybody, the likelihood is you’ll end up pleasing nobody.

It’s like going supermarket shopping without a list with your partner. You both know generally what you need to buy, and you’re both trying to fill the trolley with what you need plus a couple of extras to make it all worthwhile. When you get to the checkout, you’ve got your extra special chocolate ice cream treat ..and then up pops your partner’s tiramisu extra special ice cream treat….no communication and not enough room in the freezer. And you each thought the other one would put in the milk!!!

With complex projects you may be faced with different managers, managing different aspects, and yet you are still expected to produce a whole. The chances of the dreaded creep, increase with each stakeholder.

8. No stakeholders

With multiple stakeholders, too many people are trying to take control – it’s an issue. But equally, in fact, more problematic is when nobody takes control. Clients are often busy people, focusing on numerous projects and other issues, this can quite easily lead to a seeming lack of interest. Sometimes you may see it as a blessing, be left without the constant to and froing of emails and status updates. It is, however, the number 1 cause of project failure and a serious cause of scope creep.

Without active stakeholders, the decision making falls onto you, and probably your team. If you run into problems or bottlenecks you may have to decide to change course or add new features. Whether or not this falls within the original scope becomes your problem and your problem alone. This lack of communication can lead to disgruntled clients when the bill comes in.

How to avoid scope creep

Once you’ve established the main reasons for scope creep potential, the key is being on top of them, addressing them swiftly and effectively, and maintaining control.

1. Document the requirements

One of the key skills for any project manager is setting out the project requirements properly. Document everything, this allows you to work out costs, staff resources, timelines, and explain them to the clients and define the expectations for your team.

This should be done after in-depth discussions with your client but also get feedback and the perspectives of your team. What’s included is in the original scope, what isn’t is open for negotiation.

There are great project management tools to help you but stick to a plan. Get to know your own system, know it inside out, build on it, and iron out any flaws. Once it’s down in back and white, signed and agreed, you’ve always got something to fall back on.

2. Verify the scope with the stakeholders

We’ve discussed the fact that scope definition is perhaps the leading cause of scope creep. So defining the scope well is the best way to avoid creep.

Involve the clients in this process and do not attempt to interpret vague ideas. Planning should involve discussion and listening as well as guidance and advice. Anything that’s unclear, clarify. Anything that can be misunderstood, get back to them and make sure both parties understand in full. When my wife sends me to the shop for milk, should I ask, bottle or carton? Full fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed? Preferred brand?…I don’t but I should. Of course, she should tell me, but she doesn’t.

A great tip is to ask them what is out of scope. If you can find out what you are not expected to do it’s a great advantage. When she asks for milk, should I buy a cow?

When you are ready with your documented scope, go over it with the client again. The time and effort spent on this stage of the project will save you time, effort, and lots of potential hassle further down the line.

3. Engage the team

You need your team onside in all areas of business. Include them from the very beginning, ask for recommendations and feedback when setting the scope. They’ll be doing the work, ask them how long it will take, they’ve got the skills and experience so use them. It allows you to cover all bases as far as functionality and potential problems are concerned and if they’ve been involved from the off, they are much more likely to follow the plan.

4. Communicate with stakeholders and your team

Project management is about managing time and resources but it’s also about managing the people involved. You have to be able to communicate with the client or clients, firstly to establish what exactly they want to achieve and how they want to do it. Further down the line, things will arise. Rarely does a project go totally smoothly, and your skill as a communicator is going to be essential keeping everybody onside.

Your team should be easier to communicate with but should be a big word. Don’t take it for granted that they know exactly what they are doing. The more communication, the better.

5. Monitor the project closely

If the scope is beginning to creep, you better be on top of it quickly. Nothing is more important than direct close monitoring of a project to avoid creep starting. Keep your finger on the pulse.

There are project management tools to help you keep track of progress, timelines, etc, but they aren’t a silver bullet for scope creep – that’s down to your awareness and the quicker you spot it the easier it is to squash.

6. Protect your team against “Gold plating”

Gold plating is the tendency of the web or software development team to over-deliver on the scope and add features that weren’t part of the original deal. It might seem like a great idea to impress the client but it can cause problems. Everything takes time, and gold plating can cause problems further down the line, extras in one area adding to extra work in another. And so the creep begins.

And think about the rising expectations of a client, by raising the bar you’re going to have to keep at that level or even beat it next time. If you buy your child two presents, one birthday and three the next anything less than 4 the following time is disappointing.

Good control of your team and close monitoring should put a stop to any of this attitude.

Is scope creep always bad?

Does scope creep always have to be seen as a negative? Very few things in life are 100% bad.

The most obvious plus of scope creep is that, as long as you have a properly agreed contract regarding the original scope, then anything extra is extra work and therefore extra revenue. They ask for something extra, you calculate the extra, they agree and it’s signed off. It’s their costs that are creeping up not your scope.

Scope creep can actually have an upside for projects with external clients. With a properly written contract, added features can produce new revenue. When the request is made, you calculate the additional hours of work and allow the client to sign off on the requested work. Your scope creep then becomes the customer’s cost creep.

Another benefit is that scope creep can improve your service and reputation. If you try to accommodate reasonable requests, it will improve your relationship with your client and hopefully lead to return orders and recommendations. There is a balance to be struck here, don’t become an easy touch, they’ll push more and more, and the more you give the more they’ll try to take. The balance is respect.

Scope creep can also allow you to improve a project, demonstrating new skills and techniques, and giving advice on improvements. Again this is about communication with the client, you’re not a pushy salesman but you can think of ways of adding value to a project.

Scope creep, shows your talents as a project manager. It’s when things are going wrong that you’ll find out who you can rely on when the chips are down. Scope creep is not only a chance to show your bosses and staff what you are made of but it is also the chance to show the client how prepared you are and how well you can handle certain situations. Clients like strong leadership and control too. It even gives you the chance to build up stronger more permanent relationships with clients, more communication, open and honest upfront discussion, professional attitudes, and style – all foundations for long-term partnerships.

Closing words

Scope creep is nothing to be scared of, you know it’s there, it’s not hiding in the shadows so be prepared for it. Clear and open communication, strong definitions, and expectations, all skills that any good project manager needs to embrace and all things that can help you avoid the creep.

When the music from Jaws starts playing you know the shark is going to attack, be prepared – have your weapons ready, have your team around you, make sure your team knows what to do, and don’t swim alone in deep water.

You may also be interested in some of these related articles:

How to tell a client “this is out of scope”, nicely

Communication gap at workplace: causes & solutions

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