Scope creep may not be an immediately obvious problem for your company. Even if you’re in under-budget and making deadlines, scope creep often causes a variety of extra hurdles and inconveniences that build up over time. One team might have to hustle to pick up the slack of another, or the team might need to use a faster development method.
Together, these minor changes can add up to a more stressful project and a weaker product.
As projects become increasingly connected within companies and vendors, there are more opportunities for scope creep. Here’s how you can prevent this phenomenon and guard your projects against it.
Scope Creep Affects All Departments and Levels
David Sharpe at Generate has a strong working definition of scope creep as “the tendency for a job to be extended by the client (and occasionally by staff over eager to please) to the point where the quoted price no longer covers the time needed to complete the job.”
For the purposes of this article, a “client” can either be an internal team or an external vendor.
Scope creep continues to diminish the profits of a job until the company breaks even or loses money in the process. Even if you’re only adding a few hours or days to a project, that’s time that you could be spending making money on additional projects.
Almost 45 percent of all projects are challenged by scope creep, Jennifer Faulkner at Proposify reports. So, the odds suggest that for every project that’s successful, the next project is likely to be late, over budget or result in a product that’s missing some required features.
What’s worse, scope creep can cost up to four times as much as the initial development costs, turning a small project with a quick turnaround into an extensive nightmare.
Non-Fiscal Consequences of Scope Creep
While most companies worry about wasted time and money when they think about scope creep, there are additional implications that can hurt your company in the long run.
Anando Naqui highlights two other effects beyond resource constraints:
- Added time and pressure can increase burnout and turnover within the company. While adding a few extra hours might not seem like a lot, they add up when you factor in all of your clients and projects in a year.
- Delayed completions and missing elements can lead to failed client relationships and a reputation for poor results. Even if the client is the cause of the scope creep, your lack of flexibility will be what they talk about.
This means that you could experience more internal struggles moving forward while externally fighting a PR battle to change your reputation.
Fortunately, scope creep can be prevented with the right PPM systems in place. You just need a project manager who can balance change and a company that creates strong client-relations policies.
1. Identify the Source of the Scope Creep
The first step toward reducing scope creep in your company is to identify why it exists in the first place.
Simon Heaton at Shopify lists five common reasons for scope creep that most businesses experience. They are:
- Misunderstanding the project requirements. Both the client and vendor side can cause this, as vendors can agree to something they’re not sure of while clients can fail to fully explain their needs.
- Lack of a client feedback process. Without opportunities for feedback, clients will either make requests throughout the project or save them all for the end. Neither is ideal for project managers who want to create set times for change requests.
- Company focus on immediate client satisfaction. This occurs when companies agree to anything a new client says to win them over instead of following company policy.
- Gold plating. Occasionally, companies will add extra features in an attempt to go above and beyond. This tends to cost time and money without benefitting the company.
- Uncontrollable external factors. Management changes, economic factors and natural disasters are out of your control, but they can quickly derail any project.
While you can’t plan for a port strike that leaves materials at the dock or a natural disaster that shuts down production for several days, you can factor for miscommunication and gold plating. In this case, project managers need to be flexible in adjusting internal deadlines to meet client demands.
2. Continue Updating Your Project Timelines
In an article for Project-Management.com, Jim Stewart lists scope creep as the number one reason projects fail. However, it’s also the most preventable.
The project manager probably can’t control who is running the project, but he or she can factor changes into the plan to create an accurate timeline for completion.
“Planned changes via a change control board are OK, since then the PM can issue a new schedule, risk and budget plan as needed,” he writes. “Otherwise, you will surely miss your target and make both the management and [client] unhappy.”
Along with flexibility, a project manager can take the following three steps to reduce scope creep within an organization.
3. Track Internal Requirements and Milestones
“While documenting explicit requirements can be a cakewalk, gathering implicit requirements are tough nuts to crack for a business analyst,” Kiranmayi Satnarayan writes at BA Times.
Unfortunately, this is something that typically comes with project experience. The more projects you complete in your industry, the more you’re able to calculate the small steps that will take up extra time and slow the process down.
By documenting every project exhaustively, you’re better able to prepare accurate timelines in the future — reducing scope creep when forgotten tasks arise.
4. Provide Constructive Feedback to the Client
Occasionally, account representatives and project managers will avoid pushing back on client plans or offering critiques of these ideas. They don’t want to damage the relationship or appear as though they think the client is making a mistake. However, this can hurt both parties in the long run.
“Two minds are better than one, and it is important that you bring your own perspective to the table and help shape your client’s plans to provide the best possible chance of success,” the team at Bidsketch writes. “Remember — you are the expert in the partnership, so act like it.”
It’s better to suggest changes to the project before the project begins instead of changing it halfway through.
5. Provide Detailed Requirements for Vendors and Suppliers
“Procurement management does not often come up in conversations about scope creep, but if you are relying upon outside people or organizations to perform important project tasks, you should have this in mind,” the team at Project Management Academy writes.
While you may experience a client that makes unreasonable demands, you become the unreasonable client when you work with outside vendors. Even if the changes aren’t from your company, you have to pass them on as the middleman. One of the easiest ways to reduce scope creep on a project you deliver to the client is to prevent the amount of scope creep you create for your vendors.
6. Close Communication Gaps
By taking time to really drill down and understand the expectations of the clients and the requirements of vendors, project managers can start to build a clear roadmap of what the process will look like.
“The greatest obstacles to containing scope creep boil down to miscommunication and ambiguity,” Rachel Burger writes at Capterra. This occurs when the client and vendor disagree on what the initial scope of the project is. The client might not have specified what they wanted or the contractor might not have picked up on it. Either way, extra work is required because of the miscommunication.
These communication gaps can be closed during the initial onboarding process. Janet Odgis, president and creative director at design firm Odgis + Co, lists four questions that need to be answered before any project begins:
- How many decision makers will be involved on the client side?
- Is there budget flexibility in case the project expands beyond its original scope?
- How many times will you meet with us to review the project?
- What happens if the timeline is exceeded?
The Rio Olympics are just one example of a project plan that could have been shaped with this methodology. Organizers in Rio were on a strict timeline that required them to hit their goals, and exceeding the budget meant tapping into taxpayer dollars or Olympic funds.
So, corners got cut. While the Olympics were lauded as a success, the Australian National Team still found broken sinks and uninstalled plumbing in their rooms, for example.
7. Prevent Overachievers From Slowing the Project Down
As Simon Heaton mentioned above, gold-plating is one of those scope creep issues that you actually have control over.
“In gold-plating scope creep, the original project requirements are augmented or embellished to make the project end-result better, more technically perfect,” the team at Project Smart writes. “Again, if the initial project requirements were sufficiently specific, clear and detailed, deviation from the plan specifications would be more difficult and less likely.”
While adding extra features seems like a nice concept, it continues to take time from the project and therefore money from the company. More often than not, the client doesn’t even notice these changes.
If you can find the teams that are gold-plating and holding up approval times, then you can focus on the actual deliverables of a project.
8. Create Company Processes for Handling Additional Requests
Many project managers believe that additional client requests are often the cause of scope creep, and that those requested changes lie completely beyond the PM’s control. But only the first part of this is true.
Companies can pump the brakes on these client changes while maintaining the relationship.
Phil La Duke, who refers to scope creep as “the killer of projects,” admits that while the customer isn’t always right, the customer is always the customer, and isolating them can lead to lost business and a bad reputation. However, he emphasizes the concept that customers can’t go around expecting changes for free.
Take whatever industry you’re in and condense it down to La Duke’s fast food metaphor: If a customer walked into McDonald’s and paid for a cheeseburger, they couldn’t ask for a large order of fries and a soda as well and expect those add-ons to be free.
When changes affect the project’s scope (beyond removing the onions or adding a side of ketchup), those changes need to be reviewed as part of the contract negotiations.
9. Present Changes as Additional Add-Ons
Even better, try to anticipate client changes.
“Beating the client to the punch is an excellent way to prevent scope creep,” Abdullahi Muhammed writes at Forbes. “If you can mention the extra items before your clients do, you can talk price before they have the chance to ask for it for free.”
Continuing with the fast food metaphor, this is akin to asking a customer if they would like a drink with their burger before they pay for it — i.e. standard retail upselling.
During your post-project reviews, make a note of the additional extras that clients ask for that slow a project down. In the future, you can jump ahead of them by presenting those extras as optional add-ons.
If and when they do return with additional specifications, you already have a proposal ready to increase the timeline and budget.
10. Use Project Milestones to Hold Clients to their Plan
Earlier, we discussed the importance of documenting every step of the project internally for easier project management in the future. However, creating forward-facing documentation and creating steps for the client to approve can also help mitigate scope creep from the client side.
“This is especially true for the original goals of the project,” Andrew Arnold writes at Blu Mint Digital. “If the client begins to stray from the original idea, reference the original plans.”
This process will prevent clients from requesting changes to phase two when your contractors have just started phase eight.
This process tends to make upper management nervous because it means saying no to the client. However, Becky Blanton explains that there’s more than one way to deter a client. Instead of shutting clients down when they ask for changes, mention that a change will affect the scope of the project and the big picture will have to be adjusted — including the timeline and budget.
“Never give up something without getting something in return,” she writes. Negotiating a fair trade for the additional services will help your relationship with the client in the long run.
Scope creep can be frustrating to your employees and damaging to your bottom line. However, with the right planning, it can be reduced and even eliminated from most of your projects.