gold plating in project management

What is Gold Plating in Project Management? Prevent Needless Overdelivery

There are many ways a project can go wrong. Perhaps you forgot to include a key step in the process. Or maybe you didn’t budget enough time or resources to complete the project. But there’s another way projects can easily go off-track — and it’s one that too many project managers don’t even think about. Gold plating.

What is gold plating in project management?

When a new project comes in, there’s a natural tendency to want to make it bigger and more ambitious. In project management, this phenomenon has a special name to it – gold plating. 

By definition, gold plating refers to the practice of exceeding customer or client expectations by delivering more than what was asked for. The term is borrowed from the manufacturing industry, where manufacturers add unnecessary features and updates to products to make them appear more valuable. 

Specifically, it was coined by engineer Dwight E. Purdy in the 1950s when he discovered that engineers were improving the switches in order to make them look better than those made by their competitors.

Since then, it has been used in all kinds of contexts to describe people who add features that aren’t really required by their projects’ specifications.

When applied to the world of project management, the term refers to any kind of extra work that’s carried out without an explicit request from the client or customer. But this sounds exactly like scope creep, you might wonder. 

Gold plating and scope creep are similar in that they both add to the project scope. However, scope creep can be seen as accidental, while gold plating is deliberate. It’s important to know the difference:

Gold plating vs scope creep

Gold plating is a form of scope creep. But unlike other forms of scope creep, gold plating is deliberate — it’s done by someone on purpose (usually someone on the team). And it’s usually done for good reasons. In fact, gold plating is a common practice among developers who want to deliver superior products nowadays. Here’s an example.

An example of gold plating

A common scenario goes like this: The project manager receives a set of scope requirements from the client, and they’re happy with them. Then the team starts working on the project, and one person comes up with an idea that would make the project look even better.

This person talks to another team member who has a similar idea, and they end up creating something even better than what was originally agreed upon. They then go to their project manager and ask if they can add this extra work to the original scope… and here is where things can go wrong.

In many cases, gold plating can be counterproductive and lead to scope creep, which will drive up costs and delay the project.

New to the scope creep phenomenon? You’ll find more info here:

The problem with gold plating

Although it may seem like you’re doing your customer a favor by giving them more than they’ve paid for, gold plating actually hurts your business and your customers. 

The main problem with gold plating is that it can cost your company a lot of money and time. In the above example, the two team members were just trying to help the client out by offering something extra. But what if their new idea costs more than what was initially agreed upon? If your team does this without involving your client, you may end up losing money on the project or delivering late.

Ironically, gold plating often backfires.

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. 

To illustrate why overdelivering is bad for your business, let’s go over what it does to two important aspects of your projects:

  1. The client’s budget. When you decide to gold plate, you risk going over budget. The client has only set aside a certain amount of money for the project, and if you start adding more and more to it, they might not be able to afford it. If they can’t afford it and they stop the project, then all the work you put into all those extra features will have been for nothing, because they won’t pay you for them.
  2. Your team members’ time management skills. When you have a deadline for something, you schedule everything for specific times. You cannot schedule things indefinitely though — there has to be an end point. If you keep adding stuff to what should have been done by now, then that means something else has to give.

Either way, when you start adding features without proper consideration and planning, your projects tend to go over schedule and over budget. The risk of disrupting other ongoing projects also increases when you add unplanned features.

Project managers also need to consider different scenarios while dealing with gold plating:

  • The customer may not need or want the extra functionality, so it adds unnecessary costs
  • It can lead to delays in delivery or team members working overtime
  • The client might refuse to pay for the extra work

Gold plating will eventually leave you with less time for other projects. Even worse, it will create feelings of resentment toward your client in the long run.

But how can project managers prevent it from happening, or turn this ship around when it has already happened? Before answering this question, let’s take a look at why gold plating happens in the first place. 

Why do teams gold plate?

While sometimes we gold plate out of excitement, there’s another reason why teams resort to gold plating. 

More often than not, we gold plate because we aren’t clear about the problem we are solving and what the agreed-upon solution is. We have a fuzzy understanding of what our client wants, so we overdeliver.

When you are unclear on the problem or solution, you will default to overdelivering in an attempt to meet expectations and avoid conflict with your client.

That being said, sometimes gold plating is a sign that your team does not understand what they’re building or don’t have enough knowledge. Another reason why gold plating might be happening is that the client, on their side, lacks the necessary expertise. 

How to address gold plating in project management

Gold plating can be a slippery slope if left unchecked. So what can you do about it?

Both cases from the above can be tackled by creating more specific briefs and providing training for both, the team and the client when it is needed. 

Remember that all the stakeholders need in-depth training. Glossing over the basics won’t suffice. 

Another option is to try to prevent scope creep from happening in the first place. In this article, we’ve described 27 tips to avoid scope creep. Go have a read.

Let us know in the comments below whether you’ve experienced this phenomenon on your projects, and how you addressed it.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

April 22, 2022 at 9:39 AM

Great article!

April 22, 2022 at 9:41 AM
– In reply to: Anonymous

Thank you!

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