Taking control of your project: managing scope creep

Written by Caoilainn Scouler - July 11, 2019

Scope creep is one of the most common complications a project manager can come across during the project lifecycle. While it is never entirely preventable, it is important to always be aware of it, and to know how it can be avoided.

What is scope creep?

A project’s scope can be defined as the agreed work that will be produced during the lifecycle of said project. If the project’s scope changes from what was originally agreed, either suddenly or gradually, scope creep occurs.

Not keeping track of scope creep can result in many issues. Most commonly, it can cause time and resources to be wasted, resulting in missed deadlines and projects going over budget.

But there are other more subtle ways that scope creep can negatively impact your project:

A project scope provides project managers and their clients with a clear direction for the project. Changing direction therefore disrupts the entire project, which could have knock-on effects for the client’s business. Scope creep can cause dissatisfaction for your team. It creates an environment of uncertainty, where your teammates are never sure what they should be doing. This could lead them to become frustrated or dissatisfied with their role.

In this blog I will aim to identify some of the top causes of scope creep – and how to avoid it.

Disclaimer: There may be scenarios where a project does need to be radically changed, due to an unforeseen development in the client’s business, or a significant strategic decision. But in cases such as this, we believe the project should be completely rescoped and restarted.

The top causes of scope creep – and how to avoid them

A bad brief

Not all briefs are created equally. Some clients will send you a forty page PDF, bursting with details and market research. Sometimes, all you will get is a few bullet points in an email. The bottom line is that if you don’t understand the work that you are expected to deliver, you won’t know where to draw the line when changes or new features are requested. What’s more, not having a good brief means that you won’t be able to accurately quote for the work required. Either of these situations will lead to scope creep.

This is why we dedicate a lot of time at the beginning of each project to research and discovery. We need to dissect your brief to really understand your needs. Often seemingly simple requests can turn out to be much more complex under the surface.

Solution: The devil really is in the details. If you are given a bad brief, it is your duty to flesh it out. If there is something your client hasn’t quite clarified, find out what they expect at the beginning of the project.

Lack of documentation

In the planning stages of a project, you will often be in meetings with your client, either in person or on the phone. Perhaps your client expanded on something they had written in the brief. If you don’t keep track of these conversations and what was agreed, you may find yourself in a scenario where you are unsure whether extra features or changes requested even count as scope creep. Not documenting everything is setting yourself up to fail.

You should also be transparent about what your processes are for late requests. Explaining to your client that their suggestion isn’t within the current budget can sometimes be difficult. You never want a client to respond with: “But I thought that was included?”

Solution: Create a watertight functionality spec that includes everything from the client’s brief, with expanded descriptions where necessary. This should be signed off by your client and updated regularly. Your ultimate aim is to create an environment where there is no ambiguity about what is going to be delivered. Also, agree a process with your client for any out-of-scope requests. If they are aware of this, they may be less likely to request changes, or less taken aback when you ask for more budget to meet their requirements.

Too many stakeholders

This is one of the most common causes of scope creep, and also one of the most difficult to manage. Sometimes, there are just too many people involved in a project. What’s more, some stakeholders turn up halfway through the project, requesting changes to things that have already been signed off, or asking questions about why certain decisions have been made without any background knowledge. The catch is that these stakeholders are often senior management, so you can’t exactly ignore their requests.

This is a situation that is often totally out of your control. For example, the client could hire someone new mid-project, who is determined to assert themselves in their new role. You need to be aware of these situations and how they could affect your project.

Solution: From the very beginning, ask your client who in their organisation will be involved in the project – and who has the final say. Often, it won’t be your main point of contact. Make sure that you get confirmation from your client that these individuals are included when they need to be – whether it is reviewing designs, attending meetings, or signing off work. If the client introduces a new stakeholder, make sure to be friendly and understanding. It’s often worth your while to catch up with them and give them some background on the project. This will give them more confidence and make change requests less likely.

Is the request intentional or unintentional?

Scope creep can be intentional or unintentional. In my experience, it is often unintentional. A lack of understanding or technical knowledge can mean that clients ask for extra features without realising that it is an extra feature. Sometimes what they may see as a minor change can actually be a significant amount of work.

However, be aware of intentional scope creep. If you find the project scope is constantly being inflated, or that extra features are being added in an attempt to reduce costs, be sure to stand your ground. Project requirements are agreed for a reason, and both the agency and client should respect this.

Solution: Be honest and clear with your clients at all times. Don’t just say “no” – explain why their request would go outside of the agreed scope and work towards a solution. If the client persists, don’t be afraid to be firm. Avoid traps like “While you do that, could you just…”. You need to protect your team to ensure that they don’t become overloaded.

Good suggestions

Project managers often feel pressured to add extra features to a project because what was communicated actually might be a good suggestion. Because we ultimately aim to deliver something a client wants, it can be tempting to try and squeeze all of their requests in along the way.

It may also be the case that members of your team want to add extras to what they are creating. This is when what is known as ‘gold-plating’ starts to happen. As a project manager, you need to have an eagle eye for this so that you can stop it from happening.

The key thing to remember here is that at this point, the idea is exactly that – an idea.
Often, it hasn’t been thoroughly discussed with the client’s team. New features that creep in unexpectedly were not considered in the context of the rest of the website, which is already being built. The idea might be a good one, but without proper foresight and planning, it could create a jarring experience.

Solution: If you think an idea has legs, but is not critical to the core functionality of the final product, suggest that it is worked on as a phase two development. You could also make a note to pick up the idea towards the end of the project – if you have some budget to spare.

In Summary

Project managers need to keep a tight hold on project budgets. Never lose sight of your high priority items, which is sometimes easier said than done.

The next time you are hit with a random request, ask yourself – is this suggestion going to provide some core functionality to the website? If not, it is a “nice to have”, which is not worth sacrificing the project over.

Stay alert to possible causes of scope creep, such as new stakeholders on the scene, and don’t be afraid to stand your ground if extra, unscoped work is being requested. A successful project won’t stray far from the original scope, so bear that in mind when challenges arise and aim for the best solution possible. Your client, and your team, will thank you!