Best Practices

Scope Creep: What Is It & How to Manage It?

Jonathan Friedman
March 3, 2021
Scope Creep: What Is It & How to Manage It?

Did you know that companies complete less than one-third of projects on-time? Despite how much planning and thought goes into project timelines, companies seem to fall short most of the time. While there are plenty of reasons that a company may not finish a project on time, one of the most notorious reasons is scope creep. Because it's gradual, scope creep is also one of the sneakiest risks for a company trying to complete a project.

To learn more about scope creep and how you can manage it, keep reading. This information could save your organization from another project failure.

Below is everything we will cover. Feel free to skip ahead.

What is scope creep?

A project's scope refers to the work that goes into producing a project. 

Scope creep refers to the mostly-gradual process of a project's increasing scope. This can happen if someone adds more features to a project, increases the project's requirements, or completes more work than initially intended for the project. 

Overall, scope creep causes a project to be broader than you initially intended to be.

Scope creep can happen intentionally or unintentionally, although most project managers don't notice it's happening until it's too late. The phenomenon can occur due to a person, event, or a mix of both.

How does scope creep differ from scope change?

Scope creep is not the same as scope change. If your company decides to change the focus of the project you're working on, this is not considered scope creep.

Usually, scope change involves adjusting the project's budget, timeline, and steps. However, scope creep doesn't include this much planning because scope creep isn't planned. This means that the budget, timeline, and phases of a project with scope creep are unintentionally affected.

Scope change is an official declaration of a change in the project, while scope creep is an unofficial change.

How does scope creep differ from scope gap?

Scope gap occurs when the project team and the client aren't on the same page. This means that the project team is creating a project that the client isn't expecting.

While having a scope gap does show a miscommunication between the project team and the client, it is not the same as scope creep. With the scope gap, the changes that the project team is making to the project are intentional (even though the miscommunication was unintentional).

Why is it bad?

Scope creep causes valuable resources to focus on activities that the project team didn't agree upon. Therefore, the team didn't set aside time and money for these different things.

One of two things could happen:

  1. The project team takes too much time and money on the additional features and doesn't have enough to complete the approved features of the project
  2. The project team takes too much time and money on the additional features and causes the team to go overtime and over budget to complete the rest of the project

Neither is good.

Project teams take time before the project begins to map out everything that they need for the upcoming project. By adding extraneous things on, you're putting the project at-risk and stretching the previously-allotted amounts of time and money. In other words, you're messing up the work that you did before the project started.

Can scope creep be a good thing?

Unfortunately, there is no way for you to eliminate scope creep from your projects. People will likely change their minds, or processes will cause changes within the project as you're working on it.

You should always be ready to make some changes to the project, especially if your client requests the change. There are some advantages to making these kinds of shifts in the middle of the project.


Scope creep may improve customer retention.


By accommodating and making changes for a client who has changed their mind, your company is building its relationship with said client. No matter where you are in the project, you should be prepared for these kinds of changes.

The better you respond, the better your reputation will be in the industry. Plus, the client you made the change for is more likely to return for future projects.


Scope creep may increase revenue.


Let's be honest. The more you work on a project, the more your client will pay for the project.

If your client is requesting that you change a few things, you're likely to make more money from them. Whether you're charging your clients by the hour or the expectation, you'll bring in more revenue by addressing and responding to scope creep.


Scope creep may offer a learning opportunity.


The more your team learns to prepare for and respond to scope creep, the more they'll learn about the project planning process. Getting a new request from the client may give your team a thing or two to learn about accommodation.

Plus, they'll likely learn a few ways to avoid this kind of switch-up in the future. Optimizing internal practices is the key to controlling scope creep in the future.

Who causes scope creep?

To get a handle on scope creep, you need to understand who could cause it. Believe it or not, every person can cause some kind of change in the project's scope.

Let's look at who you should be keeping an eye on.

Client

As we explained earlier, the client is a common cause of scope creep. Typically, clients add small requests throughout the project that build up over time. They may change their minds, request new features, or ask that things be done differently.

Whatever it is, you should be honest with them. A single, small change won't do much, but several small changes can be detrimental and cause scope creep.

Tell your client if you believe that a change or a collection of changes could lead to scope creep. Be honest about the budgeting and timing issues that may come with those changes as well.

The client is always right, and you should do what they request. However, you should also let them know if their requests require additional money and time. 

If you feel that a request isn't the best answer, you could also suggest an alternative action. Ensure that you're not telling the client 'no.' Rather, you should explain the problem and offer a solution to the problem.

Project team members

People who are working on the project are likely to cause scope creep, too. There are plenty of reasons for a team member to change or alter the scope of a project:

With all of these scenarios, a little communication can go a long way. Take the time to make sure that every team member is clear about the scope of the project. You should also implement a system for communication so that team members are less likely to go off and make changes independently.

Stakeholders

Your stakeholders within your organization may cause scope creep. These individuals likely have their vision for what they think the project should be like. They may also want to push their agenda over the agenda of the team.

If you find that an internal stakeholder is trying to change your project, you should be clear about what your intentions and goals with the project are. While it may feel intimidating, you should clarify that you've planned out what the client wants, and you're confident that your current plans will meet their needs.

Also, you should explain how the changes that the stakeholder is mentioning may throw the project off-course. By including them in the decision-making process, you may help them realize the work that your team is trying to do.

Users/testers

Usually, companies have a round or two of user testing after completing a project. This allows users to give their feedback about a project before it goes out into the world.

User feedback is constructive, primarily when they've found something that could change the product's entire outlook.

Unfortunately, some of the recommended changes can alter the scope of a project. This is why you and your team have to be careful about what suggestions and changes you decide to make and respond to.

The best thing to do after user testing is to review the results and comments. Then, together with the client, you can prioritize what you want to fix and change based on the feedback.

While you're having these conversations, you should go through each potential change and look at how it may (or may not) affect the scope of a project. You should look at what problems there maybe if you don't implement the change.

Third-party personnel

Even people that aren't directly involved with the project can end up affecting the project's scope. The most common external forces include outsourced companies, content providers, and other hired help.

Bringing in extra help can make completing a project more manageable, but it can affect a project by changing its scope.

To control these changes, you need to identify the outside help you're using before beginning the project. Think about how each helper may change your scope or affect your project as a whole.

With this, you should always plan more time and money than you're going to pay initially. Interacting with these third-party companies and individuals will likely cause problems with timing and pay.

Project manager

Since the project manager is responsible for the project as a whole, they are likely to cause a change in scope. In most cases, the project manager changes scope when they're trying to fix a current issue.

For example, you might have a problem that will require a larger budget or more time. So, instead of contacting the client, you try to cut corners somewhere else.

We completely understand it. You don't want to let your customer down or ask for more time or money.

However, this can create even more significant problems for you and the client.

Addressing these problems early on is more comfortable than trying to take care of them down the road. You're more likely to be successful in getting more time and more money if you haven't already gone over the allotted amount of time and money.

Transparency and clear communication are essential.

Before having this conversation, we recommend that you pull some ideas together. You can't go to your client and ask them what they want you to do without presenting options.

Take the time to pull together different solutions to offer the best service to your client.

What causes scope creep?

Another way to get a handle on scope creep is by making sure that you understand what causes scope creep. It's more than the members of the project team or the client. Sometimes, the processes that the project team and client develop can cause scope creep, too.

Here are 10 of the most common causes of scope creep:

1. There isn't a clear scope in the first place

Before you start your project, you need to have a clear scope. Take the time to organize the exact project scope with the team members and client before starting the project.

If you don't take the time and resources necessary to figure this out at the beginning of the project, you will experience more problems with scope creep down the road.

As you're working on the project, you should continually remind the project team members of what the scope is meant to be. By reminding team members of what they should be working on, they're more likely to stick to it.

2. The client disagrees with the project team.

If you don't include your client in the project scope decision, the client will likely change their mind later.

To prevent this, you need to make sure that the client understands the project's scope. This doesn't mean that you should tell them what it is.

Instead, you should schedule and go through a formal meeting with the client. Talk to them about what both parties want and ask questions about what they expect from the project.

Once your team has reviewed the information, you can then send a document detailing the agreement. By presenting the information in the meeting and a document, you confirm what the client wants in spoken and written language.

This makes it less likely that there were any miscommunications along the way.

3. The project team is leaving the client out.

As your team is working on the project, they should be regularly checking in with the client. Give them progress reports and ask for feedback along the way.

If you wait until the end of the project to let them know how everything is going, you're likely to make changes to the project. This can lead to more time and money wasted as well.

4. The project manager isn't reporting problems.

If you notice an issue, you need to let the client and stakeholder know. Don't wait until the issue becomes a detriment to the entire project. The sooner you announce the problem, the better the result will be.

We always recommend taking the time to map out some solutions before presenting the problem. However, you shouldn't take a long time with this process. The longer you wait, the more of a problem the issue may cause.

5. The project team underestimated the timing.

Some projects take more time than we think they will. Your project team has likely underestimated the time of a project before.

To get rid of this issue, you need to make sure that you're allotting enough time to complete a project. The time you're going to set aside for reconstruction and fixing existing issues will vary depending on how complex the project you're working on is.

If you're unsure how much time your project will need, look at how your team did with completing past projects on time. Figure out what the previous roadblocks were and how you can prevent and prepare for these roadblocks now.

6. The project team didn't prioritize features.

Before you start building your project, you need to have a clear idea of your priorities. This can help you and your cross-functional team decide what the essential features and considerations are in making edits and changes to the future project.

To choose the most critical features, you should consider what features you and your team consider necessary for a final, usable product. We emphasize the word "usable."

Make sure that you're building a usable product at any stage in the process. Don't produce pieces of the project that may lead to an unusable final product. Instead, build feature upon feature to ensure that your consumers can use the product at any stage in development.

7. The project team doesn't have a change response.

Hopefully, when you start your project, your team has a clear idea of how they will handle change. If not, the project team isn't going to understand how to handle changes in the future.

To get ahead of this problem, make sure that you take the time to address project changes at your initial meeting.

With each change that comes forth, your team should take the time to identify the difference, if it changes the scope, how it changes the scope, and how to raise a request to the team. By outlining an effective and efficient way of reporting, your team will be better off when it comes to upcoming changes.

8. The project team didn't estimate correctly.

The beginning of the project development process is delicate. There are plenty of unknowns and only so many factors to work with. With the lack of information, your team has to decide how long every project will take.

It sounds impossible.

Many companies have issues with these estimations because they don't know where to start. They aren't sure how long each step will take or what budgeting considerations they need to make.

In the end, estimation issues can lead to budgeting problems, timing problems, frustration, and scope creep. If processes and steps aren't organized, you're going to have a very unhappy project team.

The best way to get ahead of this is to look at past projects. Evaluate how long steps in those projects took and be realistic about how much time and money each stage is likely going to take. 

Don't forget to include some time and money buffers in there. While you shouldn't plan to spend thousands more than you want to, it's nice to have a buffer when something goes wrong.

9. The project manager doesn't evaluate requests before implementation.

As your team is working through the project, requests and ideas will likely come up along the way. While ideas are always welcome and much appreciated, you should take every single one of them with a grain of salt.

That means that you need to evaluate every one of them before considering implementing them into the project. Whenever a project manager is faced with a new request, they need to make sure that they take the time to go over the impacts that the request would have:

These and other questions can reveal whether your project team should take all of the time to run through and implement requests. By going through this list (and adding other inquiries you value), you'll be able to get rid of requests that may negatively impact your projects.

10. Users aren't involved.

As we mentioned earlier, user testing is essential. This stage in project development gives you insight into how the project works for users and allows users to provide feedback based on their experience.

Most project teams involve their testing users at the very end of the project development process. However, this isn't the best way to go about it.

Users should be involved throughout the project development process. Don't get so comfortable with the project creation process that you don't need the testing users.

Getting users involved early can help your team identify issues before they become a detriment to the project. The sooner they see the project, the better off your team is.

If you find that the client isn't willing to include user testing throughout the development process, you should review the advantages that user testing has a product:

The more involved users are, the better your end-product will be. 

 

How to manage scope creep

Managing scope creep before it happens is the best way to get ahead of all of the problems that can come with it. Plus, if you're aware of your scope throughout the project, you'll be able to avoid it more effectively.

Let's talk about the best methods for managing your project's scope before you run into scope creep.

Five ways to manage scope creep

1. Be proactive

Get ahead of it. Don't wait until something terrible happens to address a negative situation.

This is why we've suggested that you evaluate your project's risk before the project even begins. The more you can predict and get ready for risk, the less likely it is that that risk will become an issue.

Make sure that you're communicating about the risk in a project. Everyone involved with the project should have a clear idea of what risk they should be looking out for and preventing.

2. Set your priorities

 As you're listing out potential issues with your project, you need to be thinking about the critical tasks you need to complete to satisfy your project. By focusing on and honing in on these tasks, you're going to be creating a final product at every stage in project development.

Start with the bare bones of the project and work on the details later, focusing on the most important ones first. Not only can this help you manage time. It is also a great way to keep the scope of your project under check.

Again, make sure that everyone involved in creating the project understands the most critical tasks. We wouldn't want anyone wasting time on a piece of the project that isn't the focus.

3. Bill for changes

It's not easy to say no, but sometimes the client gives recommendations and changes that alter the project too much. You may have to charge more for additional features on the project.

There are plenty of advantages here:

Make sure that you're defining your prices ahead of time. You wouldn't want to taint the relationship with a client by expecting charges that you never clarified. Place any potential charges in the contract or fine-print of your agreement with the client.

4. Get some help

Don't be afraid to outsource. It brings more risk into the project, but it might be a risk that you need to incur to get the project done successfully.

If you don't have the resources within your company to get something that the client wants to be done, you need to outsource. Don't try to hide away your skills and give your client something sub-par.

Just make sure to evaluate your potential risk any time you bring in a partner. You may want to speak with different potential partners about the risk they foresee in the working relationship.

5. Say no

In the worst cases, say no. If you feel that the work that the client or stakeholder is requesting is going to affect the project negatively, you have the right to say no.

While this may not seem like the smartest decision for an interaction with a client, it is a respectable one. As long as you lay out why you've decided to say no, the client or stakeholder will likely understand and respect your decision. 

Conclusion

Managing scope creep involves taking a bunch of moving parts and organizing them. It isn't the most effortless process, but it will better keep your project on track for success.

If you're looking for an easy way to manage scope creep and keep track of all of your projects, look no further than TrueNxus. Our project management software can help you organize every step of any project you and your team are working on.