What Is Scope Creep? (and How Can You Prevent It)

Bojan Rendulic

March 28, 2019

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We’ve all been there. You’re working with a client on a project and things are going smoothly.

Everything is on track, and you’re thinking you’ll be able to wrap up the whole shebang by the end of the day. Then you check your email and see a new message from your client…

“No problem,” you think to yourself, “they probably just want to commend me on what a fine job my agency has done on this project.” You open the email. The message contains a long list of things the client wants you to change/add, none of which are remotely related to the project’s original intent. So much for wrapping up by the end of the day, eh? What went wrong?

If you’ve ever found yourself in this position (and we know you have), you’ve experienced scope creep. But what exactly is scope creep, and how can you prevent it? Let’s take a closer look at this common problem that agency project managers face.

What is scope creep

As the name implies, scope creep refers to unplanned changes in a project’s scope that typically cause the project to take a lot longer, and sometimes even fail completely. It’s also called ‘kitchen sink syndrome’ because scope creep can involve throwing lots and lots and LOTS of ideas at a project—everything but the kitchen sink.

While scope creep can be as blatant as an unexpected list of demands, it doesn’t usually happen so obviously or all at once (hence the word ‘creep’). Instead, scope creep is often much more gradual and subtle. So subtle, in fact, that you might not even realize it’s happening until you’ve worked four times longer on a project than originally intended and you don’t even remember what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place. Somewhere, somehow, the original vision for the project was lost and replaced by…something else. And not in a good way.

Scope creep: minor irritation or major blow

When scope creep in project management happens, how does it affect your business? The answer is, it depends. Scope creep can either be a minor irritation with a side of decent compensation or a major financial blow, and it all comes down to the project’s pricing model.

If you and your client agreed on an hourly rate for the project, the added amount of time spent isn’t such a big deal because at least you’re being paid for it. In fact, your agency may end up benefiting if a quick and easy project balloons into an involved and time-consuming one—the longer it takes, the more money you make. You might not love (or even recognize!) the end product, but at least you’re compensated accordingly.

When does scope creep really hurt? When you and your client have agreed on a fixed rate. When you quote a price based on your belief that a project will take 20 hours and you end up spending 200 hours on it, you’re taking a major financial hit. It’s especially painful if the finished product ends up being so different from what you intended that you end up not being proud of it. Not only did you spend WAY too much time on the project, but you don’t even want to put it in your portfolio. Ugh.

Scope creep: just say no

The best way to handle scope creep is to keep it from happening in the first place. This means having an honest conversation with your client well before the project starts so that everybody’s on the same page in terms of what the project will entail and how it should look when completed.

If you’re not confident that a conversation will be enough to prevent scope creep and/or you prefer to have something in writing, draw up a detailed Terms of Service agreement and have both parties sign it. If (when?) things start to go off the rails, you can whip out this document and hopefully get the project back on track.

Unfortunately, not even an ironclad, legally binding agreement is enough to keep some clients from scope creepin’ on a project. That’s why it’s important that you and your team know how to handle these creepers.

Here are some tips:

Before you decide on a project’s pricing model, try to assess the likelihood that scope creep will be a problem. If you’re worried that the project will extend beyond the original timeline, consider negotiating an hourly rate.

Right from a project’s get-go, keep an eye out for signs of scope creep. Bring any issues to the attention of your team and your client immediately, before they have the chance to spiral out of control.

Make sure you have the right tools for the job of preventing/stopping scope creep. Productive offers services like time-tracking, project management assistance, and resource planning to help your agency and your client stay on task.

Speak frankly and firmly with your client about why their scope-creepy suggestions aren’t a good idea. Remind them of the plan you discussed before starting the project, and let them know you intend to stick to it.

If all else fails, attempt to turn scope creep into an opportunity. So your client really wants to see something happen but it doesn’t fit with the current project? Try floating the idea of a new project that will give them what they want (and give your agency more work at the same time).

While scope creep in project management can be hard to spot and even harder to control, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. By following the above tips, you can stop scope creep in its tracks and once again start enjoying opening emails from your clients.

Bojan Rendulic

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