scope creep in project management

Scope Creep in Project Management – And 27 Tips to Avoid it

At some point in your career, you’ll likely encounter a project that suffers from scope creep. We all know the drill – you’ve got the project plan, you’re mapping out tasks and milestones, the client has signed off on deliverables, and everyone is ready to get started. Then a few weeks into the project, the client sends over a new request – one that was never part of the initial project outline. That’s how scope creep enters the picture. 

If you ask project managers to define scope creep, they will say it’s a hidden enemy. And want it or not, it appears out of the blue, sometimes even before the rubber hits the road. Being one of the most common reasons for project failure, scope creep has to be navigated intelligently. 

You need to be prepared from the start so that you can manage client expectations during the project and make sure everyone’s on the same page at all times. It involves understanding the definition of scope creep, its causes, and how to avoid it. And we’ve got a guide for you to answer the hardest questions. 

Let’s start with the basics.

So what is scope creep?

Scope creep, also called feature creep, or requirement creep, is the uncontrolled growth or change in the scope of a project. It can happen to any project at any time, and it’s something that every project manager dreads. 

By definition, scope creep happens when the client keeps adding new features and requirements to a project. The additions are not discussed with the team prior to being added and so require more work than expected. 

Samuel Willis, a project expert out of Florida, now part of the US Navy’s Intelligence Team says he had to “learn about scope creep real quick because you find out you’re being taken advantage of or the project would never end.” At the end of the day, this applies to all project managers.

But how do you know if it’s scope creep?

A project may be progressing along swimmingly, and then something out of left field changes everything. But how do you know whether it’s scope creep? Here’re some definitions you could benefit from knowing before tagging any change on your project as scope creep. 

Scope creep vs scope change vs scope gap

The difference between scope creep, scope change, and scope gap lies in the following:

Scope creep is when a project’s scope changes and the team involved with it isn’t notified, or the changes aren’t reflected in the project’s budget and timeline. The result is that the scope of the project can increase to the point where it leads to dissatisfaction or even failure.

Scope change is when both parties agree that a project should change its scope. This might include adding new features or expanding functionality. When this happens, adjustments are made to account for the budget, timeline, and resources involved.

Scope gap is when there is a mismatch between what the client expects and what the project team understands about the scope of a non-agile project. Since agile projects expect their scope to change and development happens iteratively, this kind of gap doesn’t exist beyond a single iteration.

Why scope creep is bad for your project

To date, scope creep is strongly believed to be the main issue impacting your organization’s ability to complete projects. 41% of project managers in the PMI community admit that scope creep has been a challenge.

project scope creep

While it’s true that some scope creep is inevitable — especially in creative projects — if the scope of your project changes dramatically without discussion, this can lead to serious problems. 

The thing is, if the budget doesn’t change to reflect the new requirements, then you’re out-of-pocket for all the extra work. And if there are certain aspects of the project that are no longer relevant because of the changes, then you’ll need to request payment for these “lost” tasks.

An example of project scope creep

Scope creep happens when you find yourself in endless rounds of “just one more feature,” and your project ends up taking way longer than you planned. 

The devil, or better say scope creep, is always in the details. New requests, even the smallest ones, can snowball into a big chunk of work. Consider this example of scope creep: 

You sit down with a new client and scope out their project. You write up your estimate in an email which includes everything they need to bring their project to completion. Then, they pick up their phone and call you saying they need this extra feature or what if this happened? The next day, they ask you to add yet another layer. 

This way, they add work to a project that wasn’t originally specified and agreed upon by both parties involved. It’s when you tack on that extra 20% that really can make the difference between a profitable job and an unsuccessful one! 

So it’s better to know all causes of scope creep before it hits you, which brings me to my next point. 

Top causes of scope creep

There are several reasons scope creep happens. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Poor communication. Without proper communication, it’s hard to maintain an understanding of the vision and requirements of your product. If you don’t communicate effectively throughout the project, then you can easily lose track of your goals and end up with a product that will lack clarity and focus.
  • Poorly defined objectives. If you don’t have clear parameters for what you’re trying to achieve, it will be hard to determine whether something falls within the scope of your project or not.
  • Change in requirements. The client or stakeholders may not have all their requirements listed when they start working with you on the project, so changes are bound to happen as more features are added or discovered during the course of development. These unexpected changes could lead to scope creep if they aren’t properly communicated or understood by everyone involved in the project.
  • Pressure from a client or upper management to increase the scope. Sometimes clients simply don’t know what they want and need time to get their thoughts in order before they can specify their needs. But if you say yes before they’ve finalized their requirements, that won’t help either one of you — it will just contribute to scope creep and cause delays down the road.

All in all, there are two kinds of scope creep:

  1. The good kind: it’s when project changes are agreed on by both the client and the project manager. The agreed-upon changes are beneficial to both parties and don’t affect the budget or timeline.
  2. The bad kind: when changes aren’t discussed by both parties, but still impact the budget, timeline, and possibly quality of work. These changes can be detrimental to both parties and lead to dissatisfaction with the final product.

Learn more about different types of scope creep here. And continue reading for tips to avoid scope creep.

How to avoid scope creep in the first place

Whatever the cause, scope creep is rarely malicious. Your clients aren’t trying to take advantage of you — they’re simply unaware that adding additional features will require more time and money, which will delay the original deadline for completion.

It’s your responsibility to communicate that reality, however, and avoid scope creep from happening in the first place. The thing is that project scope creep happens to the best of us, but there are ways to minimize the effects. Here are our top tips for how to avoid scope creep. That starts with defining the scope clearly at the beginning of the project.

1. Start with a project charter

The first thing to do when you’re about to start a brand new project is to create a project charter. A charter captures the boundaries of the project in terms of both functionality and time. The charter should be an agreement between your customer and your team. 

While a project charter is not a required part of the project management process, it’s something that should be included in your workflow. It helps to clarify the purpose of the entire project, setting expectations and providing guidelines in terms of how things will get done. 

2. Identify all stakeholders as early as possible

To minimize the risk of scope creep, you need to identify all the stakeholders who will be involved in the project. These are people or groups whose interests are affected by the results of your project. Stakeholders can be internal (your company) or external (a client company). They can be part of your team or not. You should include anyone who will be impacted by the project or who has the power to influence it.

You’ll likely come up with a long list of stakeholders, but don’t worry! The next step is to prioritize this list and focus on working with your most important stakeholders first.

3. Have an initial kick-off meeting 

Get everyone together for an initial kick-off meeting with all key stakeholders and customers, so that everyone understands the purpose of the project from the outset. This will allow you to set expectations at the start, rather than allowing them to morph into something else later on. 

This is also where you’ll need to get agreement on what’s in and out of scope: What will be included? What won’t? What are some things that we may not be able to include in this version but might consider later?

You don’t need to make a final decision about features at this point (that can come later), but you should agree on a basic framework.

4. Agree on a good scope definition

What are you building? What is your vision? A good scope definition is the first step in managing project scope. It should include objectives, deliverables, work breakdown structure, assumptions, and constraints. 

Even if your client changes their mind later on, you can easily refer back to this document and remind them that this change was not agreed upon.

In most cases, the best plan is to stick to your original scope definition. Adding new features will increase costs and introduce new risks, which can jeopardize your return on investment.

5. Create a Statement of Work

Another tool for preventing scope creep is called a Statement of Work (SOW). This document outlines exactly what the client will expect from your team. It breaks the project into smaller chunks. For example, if your team is working on developing an app, your SOW may break down each phase of development in detail so that there’s no room for confusion once you get started on the project.

6. Set expectations on what is out of scope (“specifically exclude”)

Just because a feature wasn’t included in the original spec doesn’t mean it can’t be added later. But stakeholders need to know that out-of-scope items will require more time and resources and might push the project deadline back. It’s always better to have this discussion at the outset of the project.

7. Define success criteria for your project 

Define what “success” will look like. Include a list of deliverables in your initial proposal, as well as what won’t be included in the project. This clarifies expectations from both parties’ perspectives.

8. Build a roadmap and timeline for your project 

To avoid scope creep, you need to set clear parameters for your project right from the start and make sure everyone involved understands what’s expected at each stage. A roadmap will make things visual. This way you can be sure everything happens when intended without having to deal with unnecessary delays caused by unexpected additions later on down the line.

9. Have clear deadlines and milestones in place

Tracking deliverables against deadlines helps keep everyone accountable, and also makes it easier to spot when things aren’t going according to plan. If an upcoming milestone looks like it might not be met, flag this early.

10. Be realistic about timeframes

Talk through every detail of the project carefully with your client before starting work. Be realistic about how long it will take to complete each task, and outline these clearly so your client knows what to expect. If they want to add or change anything, remind them of your original agreement and negotiate any changes before they spiral out of control.

11. Clarify the roles of every person involved in the project

You should establish the stakeholder roles and responsibilities as early as possible. Make sure that every team member, stakeholder, and client knows what their role is in relation to the project. This will also help with accountability when all parties know who is responsible for which aspects of the project.

12. Recognize who has authority over project changes

Projects are inherently risky. In order for projects to be successful, the people running them need to know whom they can rely on. One of the first steps in ensuring a project’s success is making sure each team member knows who has the authority over the project plans. 

While there might not be a formal hierarchy or titles in place—and while it might be different from company to company—it’s important that everyone understands what their role is and how they are supposed to act in order for their role to work.

13. Get input from stakeholders early and often

You may think that you know what your client wants, but do they really? Get feedback from stakeholders throughout the project—don’t wait until completion! 

It’s “talking to people” that helps project managers prevent scope creep, believes Alexander Stauber, a Project Lead at Payback. 

This will help keep everyone on the same page and prevent any last-minute changes that could jeopardize your timeline and budget.

14. Be crystal clear on what you’ll deliver

You need to establish clear expectations on what the final product will look like and how it will function before you start work on it. The more detail you can include at this stage, the better. Include sample materials (such as wireframes) where possible so everyone knows what they’re signing up for.

As you get started on your project, be sure everyone involved understands the scope of the work and how long it will take to accomplish. This can help prevent confusion later down the line when people start asking for additions or modifications. To establish clear expectations, creating a project schedule is necessary. 

15. Set boundaries

You need to set limits and not deviate from them if you hope to stick within budget and on schedule. That means letting people know you’ll consider their requests but only if they’re willing to pay for them. Once you’ve made a commitment and started work on something, it’s unlikely that anyone will agree to pay for alterations.

16. Get everything in writing

Don’t rely on verbal communication alone — always document any changes or additions in an official project update. This ensures that everyone has a record of what was discussed, as well as a paper trail you can refer back to if someone says they don’t remember agreeing to do something (or not do something)

17. Don’t overpromise

While you may have the best intentions in mind when starting a project, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement. When you’re managing a project, there’s a natural tendency to want to make it bigger and more ambitious. This is the point where your team starts overpromising and overdelivering in the end. 

Phil Simon, an award-winning author, advisor, dynamic keynote speaker in project management, told us he once delivered twice the functionality for 40% less than the budgeted amount only to have others excoriate him. “I learned that you can fail by succeeding,” Phil told us. 

This is when you need to take a step back and ask yourself if your plans are realistic, or if you’re setting yourself (and your team) up for failure.

You can avoid this pitfall by taking some time to think about how much time your team will realistically have to complete the task. You also don’t want to assume that every resource will be available at all times. It is better to plan for potential delays and setbacks before they happen than it is to assume everything will go as planned.

18. Assume there will be change

Change happens. It’s just an inevitability of life. You know that when you launch a project, things are going to change over its course; it’s just part of the process. So why do we always seem so surprised when it happens?

To combat this, it’s helpful to always assume that there will be some sort of change in the lifespan of your project. If you go into a campaign or contract with this mindset, then you’re more likely to plan accordingly. This means you’ll have a better handle on your budget and timeline.

19. Develop a change control process

Scope creep can lead to budget and time overruns, as well as a host of other issues. It is therefore important that you have a change control process in place.

A change control process is a formalized system for handling and evaluating requests for changes in the scope of a project. It’s incredibly important because it helps you define and manage the expectations of all stakeholders.

To set up your change control process, you’ll need to decide what types of changes will be allowed (minor modifications, major modifications) and when they’ll be allowed (e.g., at any time, before the next sprint). It’s also important to make sure that each team member has a clearly defined role within your change control process. You should also have an agreed-upon method for communicating changes to any relevant stakeholders who aren’t part of your project team.

Samuel Willis is certain that scope creep is prevented by change orders. “The change order either appropriately compensates for the additional scope or shuts it down,” he explains.  

All in all, here are three of the project management plans you can create to be able to control your scope:

* Scope Management Plan—This plan outlines what is included in the scope of your project and what’s not. It also identifies who should be involved in approving any changes to the scope.

* Change Management Plan—Changes happen, especially in projects. This plan documents how you will manage changes once they occur by providing guidelines for how new requests are assessed and approved.

* Risk Management Plan—This plan defines how your team will assess risks, determine their impact on the project, and prioritize them so that you can effectively handle them as they arise.

20. Measure progress at every step of the way

Measuring project progress involves monitoring tasks that have been completed as well as those that are still in process. It also involves comparing actual work with planned work in order to determine whether the work is on schedule. When measuring progress against a budget, you want to know whether you are over or under budget.

Here’s an example:

You have a team of four developers working on a new web application. They’re tasked with building the server-side code for the application (e.g., including user registration, user-to-user messaging, and other similar features). The team estimates that they’ll need 1,500 hours to complete this work.

After two months of development, they’ve completed 500 hours worth of work and they’re estimating that there are still 1,000 hours left. Based on this information, you calculate that the project is 25% complete (i.e., 500 / 2,000).

21. Create a weekly status report 

Creating a weekly status report is one of the best ways to stay on top of your project, and can help you avoid becoming “scathed” by scope creep.

A project manager has a huge role in avoiding scope creep — making sure all their team members are aware of their goals and how they’re going to achieve them. A good PM can also take into account the things that need done and those that can wait, so they don’t fall into the trap of trying to do it all themselves.

The single biggest reason for scope creep is losing sight of your original plan. If you don’t write down your plan and track how much work is left to do every week, you won’t be able to keep up with your schedule. And if you don’t write down your plan and track how much work is left to do every week, you might end up doing more than you intended. This can cause frustration, because everyone wants things finished by their deadline.

22. Use project management software

Project management software helps you avoid scope creep, too.

It gives you a reliable way to collaborate with your team and clients. Not only can you organize your plans, you’ll have one place to go for updates and clarifications. 

Advanced project management solutions will also allow you to track progress and plan different scenarios when change requests come in. 

23. Schedule regular scope definition meetings 

It may sound counterintuitive, but scheduling more meetings actually helps you avoid scope creep by giving your team more opportunities to discuss what is and isn’t included in the project.

You should set aside some time every few weeks to go over the specific requirements of your project. These meetings should be held at regular intervals (like once a month) and involve all stakeholders in the project — including anyone who will be using the final product.

24. Ask for feedback from clients

This can go a long way in preventing scope creep from happening. Check in with your clients regularly – ask what they think about deliverables and make sure they are happy with where you are headed. The sooner you get client feedback, the sooner you’ll be able to identify any potential issues or problems before they become bigger ones down the road.

Don’t wait until the very end of the project to ask for client feedback either. Ask for feedback at key milestones (design, development, etc.). This will also prevent unpleasant surprises while wrapping up your project too.

25. Be ready to say no 

In game design, when something’s no longer fun, it stops being fun. If this is happening for your team, and you’re being asked too much, then politely tell them that there’s no more time or resources for them to work on this issue. 

If they persist and ask again, it might mean that they don’t have the full picture of what is possible or how you need to proceed. When this happens, find someone who can help make sure they understand what everyone wants and needs so they can build something together in tandem with your goals.

Start by explaining to your client that you understand their needs and want to meet them, but only within the scope of what’s possible given your budget and schedule.

This isn’t always an easy conversation to have, but it’s better than agreeing to terms you can’t fulfill – or being forced to cut corners on your project in order to meet unrealistic expectations.

26. Know who to contact when change comes in

Identify the person who will make the final call on whether or not something gets added to the project’s scope. They may be your client, or they may be a sponsor within an organization. Once you know who this person is, keep them in the loop as much as possible and get their agreement before making any changes to the project.

27. Document change requests and submit them for approval 

It’s tempting to just roll with the punches and keep working, but this is a recipe for disaster. If you want to avoid scope creep (and the messiness that comes with it), you’ll need to document change requests and submit them for feedback and approval before the work begins.

This way, you won’t have to play guess-and-check with your clients about what their vision is – they’ll be able to sign off on specific changes as they come up. With this system, both you and your client will be able to save time and money.

As you can see, there are many ways you can avoid your projects from getting sidetracked by scope creep. While there’s no one magical way to avoid scope creep, there are methods that you can employ in a batch to help ensure the project stays on course. Let me know in the comments below if there’s anything missing from the equation!

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