The most challenging thing about projects is that there’s no way to foresee every little detail and possibility. And even if you did, things change. A lot of project managers I’ve worked with have mentioned to me that scope creep (and its types) is an ongoing challenge that they deal with on a daily basis. But what are the causes of scope creep and how to address them? Let’s go through the most common ones.
1. Lack of a clear scope
Scope creep can happen for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most common is that the client doesn’t know what they want.
As Seneca said, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable. Before you actually start working on a project, you must clearly define the objectives you want to achieve – this way, you draw a line between what falls within scope, and what doesn’t. Include as many details as possible. Don’t forget to ensure that all parties involved are on the same page: prepare a charter that reflects the business needs and the overall project vision so that everybody understands what the parameters are, as well as budget and schedule limitations. There should not be any misinterpretation.
2. Lack of stakeholder involvement
Anyone who is affected by the project is a stakeholder. This term can apply to your company as a whole, as well as to your client; to someone who is or isn’t a part of your team. The sooner you identify the stakeholders, the better. If the list of stakeholders is too long, try to make it shorter: too many stakeholders can result in too many different opinions and an ambiguous strategy. So prioritize the list.
Once you identify the stakeholders, you should assign roles and requirements. This will set expectations, and make it clear that everyone will be held accountable for a specific aspect. Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occasion when stakeholders don’t spend enough time on the project. Obviously, they must contribute.
3. No change control process in place
Scope creep happens when you don’t keep the scope of your project under control.
The possibility of change is very high, and the biggest mistake you can make is not being ready to handle it. If you don’t agree on the change control process in the very beginning, you will encounter serious problems later, so don’t put it off.
Determine what changes will be allowed, and when they can be made. You can outline this in a Scope Management Plan – a document where you state how exactly the changes must be requested and approved. Without this document, project teams will probably make decisions by themselves, and there is no guarantee those decisions will be supported by others involved. Besides, a Scope Management Plan prevents you from “scope kill” – a phenomenon when you refuse to make a change, no matter how beneficial to the project it may be, for the mere reason that the process of implementing this change is too complicated.
An important thing to remember is communication: everybody needs to know who the authority approving the changes is, so that when they have something on their mind, they go directly to that person. Finally, it is necessary to create an agreed-upon method of communication to inform about the changes those stakeholders who are not part of your team.
4. Not splitting projects into phases
The longer a project, the more chances of scope creep happening: a broad time frame provides space for constantly adding features and details. This is why it’s useful to divide a project into phases (or subprojects), setting deadlines for each of them. After you finish a phase, conduct a lesson learned session and formally close the phase – this way, you’ll keep track of the results and stay motivated.
You can also create a weekly status report that would help you measure progress. Make a plan and check how much work has already been done, and what is still left. Such visualization can make it easier to meet a deadline – and help avoid the temptation to increase your own workload.
5. No feedback from clients
If there is no initial buy-in from your clients, they will probably change their minds in the course of the project. The clients must have a clear understanding of the overall picture from the very beginning. Talk them through all the deliverables and parameters; ask questions to make sure they really get it.
When the project actually starts, check in with your clients on a regular basis to get their feedback. Try to spot any problems at the point when they arise and are easy to handle. Write down all the recommendations and decisions in an official paper so that anyone can refer to them later.
Changes can bring excellent results, and it’s not wise to simply avoid them by all means. What matters though is not the change itself, but how you handle it. The causes of scope creep discussed above are not evil that have to be accepted as it is – they already contain the key to solving the issue.