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What is Scope Creep? Tips to Banish it For Good

Sean Collins Sean Collins Last Updated:

Scope creep is the silent killer for a lot of projects. You’ve probably experienced it even if you didn’t know its name.

Client projects can be a nightmare. You start so well, only to find yourself stressed out, overworked, and scrambling to keep the project afloat. 

But you can keep it at bay and prevent it from happening.

So let’s focus on what you can address. 

This guide will explore scope creep, why it ruins everything, examples, and tips for how to best deal with it.

Let’s dive in.

What is the project scope?

Project scope refers to all the work required to complete a project.

You can create a Work Breakdown Structure to help identify individual tasks, activities, and deliverables. Your next step will be to make a scope statement and project planning documents — where you will define the project’s scope.

What is scope creep in project management?

Scope creep occurs when changes are made to the project scope without any control procedure like change requests. This will lead to the project schedule, budget, costs, and resource allocation being affected — and it may compromise the completion of milestones and goals.

Why scope creep ruins everything

92% of projects fail due to a lack of scope creep management.

It’s like a little thread sticking out of your sweater, threatening to unravel the whole thing if you don’t fix it quickly.

But what does it actually look like?

Here’s a relatable project management scope creep example for a nightmarish nice visual. 

Picture this:

You’re a project manager at a web design agency.

You just got hired to create a five-page website. And you don’t have a lot of documentation or clearly-defined processes, but you’re thinking, we’ll give it a go and then adjust from there (red flag #1).

But while you get to work, the client realizes they want more. They request extra things: 

  • An SEO audit
  • More pages
  • Help with website copy
  • Custom animations

These things require money and time, but you haven’t accounted for this scenario in your original agreement.

You still want to please the client, though.

So now you have to squash the additional requirements in the original timeline. Or you’re unsure how to communicate the extra cost, so you never do it.

The results? Not good:

  1. It saps your profit margins
  2. Wrecks client relationships
  3. Overwhelms your team

1. Saps profit margins

Avoiding scope creep is listed as one of the top three factors that could determine project success and help companies save millions.

Because clients ultimately get a steal:

  1. You end up undercharging and losing money
  2. You lose even more money because you wasted time on extra services instead of other revenue-driving activities.

This isn’t their fault. We’re not saying your clients are robbing you.

But your lack of communication, boundaries, and scope definition in the initial agreement creates an environment where this can happen (more on later).

If you don’t say service X is charged extra, you can’t just spring the cost on them in the final price.

But you also can’t absorb the losses and sap your profit by thinking, “we’ll just get more clients/projects to make up for it.”

It won’t work.

This further exacerbates the problem as these become riddled with scope creep.

And that’s if you continue the client relationship.

2. Wrecks client relationships

Once you’re stuck in a cycle of scope creep, breaking the news to clients gets really awkward – “Hey, we’re undercharging you and making no money off this project.”

If not handled properly, communication can be passive-aggressive and hostile and lead to parting ways – not what anyone wants!

Your clients might not even realize they’re asking for extra stuff.

Or they might get annoyed when they suddenly have to pay more than expected.

You can understand. But on the other hand, you have your team overworking, stressing, and expecting fair compensation.

Speaking of…

3. Overwhelms your team

Nothing wrecks team morale more than expecting them to do more work than was agreed upon. 

They’re exhausted and annoyed.

They’re likely losing confidence in your decision-making, suspecting they are undervalued or underpaid for their efforts.

If scope creep happens more often, beginning new projects may become anxiety-inducing because people expect things to go wrong.

After all, you always start shiny and bright.

But eventually, the dark cloud appears in your sunny project management sky, confirming everyone’s fears.

All of this damage is harder to repair than it is to avoid.

But we’re coming to the good part:

You can prevent scope creep from happening!

But you must consider it a potential danger and recurring problem and look at what causes it first.

Causes of scope creep with examples

How do you identify scope creep before you’re already knee-deep?

Unclear scope definition

Failure to define what’s included in a service or project and what costs leaves room for disagreements and different expectations.

Being clear upfront is always better.

You may feel like some things go without saying.

But assuming you’re on the same page and leaving the details up in the air opens the backdoor to scope creep.

Awkward meeting incoming!

It’s your client calling. They thought copywriting was already included in the package and were not happy to get charged extra.

Or maybe they thought you would be finished by your initial due date–what’s taking you so long?

This is a losing position.

Lack of boundaries

Lack of boundaries doesn’t just mean an inability to say no.

Of course, you want to say yes to more work! But your “yes” should not be unconditional.

Communicating your terms upfront helps remove additional service requests from your list of cluster headache triggers.

This is the next step after having a clear scope definition: clearly defining what happens if it changes.

Maybe you defined the scope well… but forgot to specify anything else.

This still leaves you vulnerable. 

“Can you just add…”

“Is it okay if you just change…”

Uh-oh! It’s a bit late for this.

Instead of setting the terms yourself, you shape your services and processes around your clients.

Clients are more than happy to throw extra requests into the ring. Fully expect there to be no additional charge.

Scope creep with scope creep sprinkles on top.

Poor planning

The stakeholders agree on the scope, and everyone’s on the same page, but the execution plan doesn’t live up to it.

Here are some signs of poor planning:

Sign of poor planningWhy it’s bad
Lack of capacity planning toolsYou don’t know how much people have on their plate, or forget to account for non-billable/admin tasks, so you bite off more than you can chew
Issues with time trackingYou don’t have a good time tracking system. People forget to track their hours, which gets chaotic even within a single project.
Timelines that aren’t properly set upYour project estimates aren’t correct, and you don’t know how long things take–-this is especially important when you’re charging per hour.
Unclear allocation of tasks/resourcesThere’s ambiguity about who’s doing what and what the client is paying for. You may overspend or run out of funds unexpectedly. 
Lack of documentationYou have to loop everyone in manually because you didn’t document your processes. This wastes a ton of time and makes scaling next to impossible.
Ineffective communicationRelying just on email, not having chat platforms like Slack, etc. so you’re leaving notes everywhere and hoping they reach the right people at the right time.

This atmosphere is a scope creep breeding ground like water for mosquitos.

Poor planning leads to 11.4% of an organization’s resources being wasted.

It might be worth learning how to get organized at work before you take on any extra projects if this is something you struggle with.

Culture of absorbing losses

A culture of absorbing losses is like people-pleasing or not wanting to take up too much space.

You overwork, but you feel it’s your fault and responsibility, so you don’t speak up.

Mistakes happen to everyone. And it may feel noble to fix them all by yourself at the beginning, but here’s the thing:

The client doesn’t want you to do that.

Absorbing your losses isn’t a sustainable practice. It could lead to resentment or passive aggression and ultimately undermine your client relationship.

You and your team deserve appreciation and compensation for your work.

Sounds relatable? Don’t worry – it’s not too late. We’ll give you some ideas on breaking the scope creep cycle.    

How to manage scope creep

Let’s review some tips for preventing scope creep from plaguing your projects.

Because it can be done…with a bit of help.

1. Define the scope – start on the same page

Step one is defining the project objectives and goals and any specifics.

The what, how, how much, why, etc.

For example, if you’re writing content for a client, you’ll want to be clear on all you can measure:

  • How much of it do they want per month?
  • Is it a retainer at all?
  • How do they want it done in terms of tone and style?
  • Are there any resources you can use aside from independent research?
  • Who can you contact for additional questions, etc.?

Documentation is tedious and sometimes time-consuming, but it’s essential if you want to stop future projects from getting out of control. 

But don’t forget to set boundaries!

You need to state which services come in the package and clarify:

  1. Which additional services may be included later on?
  2. How much in advance should they be requested?
  3. How might the timelines and costs change if extra work is included?

A well-crafted statement of work can save you a lot of trouble later.

You won’t panic when clients ask; they will know what they’re signing up for and how much it will cost them.

2. Make a plan with clear timelines and processes

Now that everyone is on the same page about the objective, turn the scope into a step-by-step battle plan.

This is where you determine exactly how you’ll meet the requirements. Set a project timeline, assign teams, and create a process for every line of action.

You’ll be more prepared to deliver, less stressed out because you’re on top of things, and your clients will feel at ease knowing you’re not just winging it – there’s a machine powering their project.

You can complete this using a simple project plan template or project management software.

3. Maintain clear communication

You need to make sure you’re communicating well with the client.

Don’t forget to maintain communication after the initial agreement or leave long gaps between check-ins.

A status report once per month is a good rule of thumb.

…unless you’re busier than usual or something came up – in that case, get in touch as soon as possible.

Here are some platforms you can use to help with internal and client comms beyond email:

  • Slack – for internal comms, group and project-specific chats
  • Microsoft Teams – the 360 suite alternative to Slack
  • Zulip – for chats and email-style threads

With a good system and regular communication, you’re golden:

  • You maintain a good client relationship
  • Avoid doing extra or unpaid work – project managers spend 75-90% of their time on communication
  • React to changes quickly
  • The project team is up to date and doesn’t miss essential comments
  • It’s easier to juggle multiple projects

Maybe the most significant achievement is maintaining your sanity, knowing you’re not forgetting anything.

4. Track and monitor everything

Again, documentation? Not most people’s idea of fun. But it’s crucial to set up a way to collect the correct data from the beginning.

As the project progresses, you should track time per task/project, employee working hours, etc. This will help to:

  • Decreases the chances for mistakes in interpretation
  • It shows you where you burn the most time so you can adjust as needed
  • Ensures everyone gets fairly compensated for their work
  • It shows clients precisely what they’re paying you for, especially if you’re selling services
  • Allows people to jump between projects/tasks quickly, with minimum time spent on onboarding
  • Ensures that work will get done no matter what

54% of project managers don’t have real-time access to key performance indicators (KPIs).

So how can they even measure their performance or plan accurately?

…They can’t. That’s the thing.

It would be best if you used the right software to keep your business well-organized and mitigate the risk of human error.

But you can analyze ongoing project performance inside the Project Dashboard within our Web App. To use the full potential of the Project Dashboard, it’s best to set up a Project Time Estimate, manual or task-based. 

The Project Dashboard will then show a forecast for project completion based on the project estimate and the hours that have been clocked for that project so far:

screenshot of project dashboard inside of toggl track web app

The project forecast chart will display 4 different colored lines:

  • Forecast line (gray): shows a prediction of hours tracked in the future based on historical time tracking data for the project you are viewing.
  • Completed hours line (blue): shows time tracked thus far for the project you are viewing.
  • Estimated hours line (purple, dashed): shows the project time estimate.
  • Completion dateline (green): represents a predicted project completion date at the point where total forecasted hours meet the project time estimate. 

Below the Project Forecast chart, you will see a bar chart and a pie chart representing current data containing total clocked hours, billable hours, and remaining hours (based on the project estimate).

screenshot of project dashboard 'clocked hours' inside of toggl track web app

Regularly monitoring project performance will help you to find your groove, and you’ll be on your way to keeping scope creep at bay.

Quick summary + tools

Now that your scope creep prevention plan is starting to come together, you’re almost ready to set it in motion.

You can use this recap as a general framework or reminder to help you get there faster:

  1. Define the scope in the initial statement of work – goals, deliverables, optional extras, and the costs
  2. Create a project plan with clear timelines and processes – who’s doing what, when, etc.
  3. Maintain clear communication with client and team – update the client regularly with project reports and use channels like Slack to keep on top of internal comms
  4. Track and monitor everything – Use tracking tools to measure your progress.

Scope creep prevention is a challenge at first, but once you figure out your play-by-play, it will become routine.

These tools can help:

SoftwareBest for
Google docsDocument storage and sortingKeeping your desktop clean and free
SlackFast, new-world communicationGroup and project-specific chatsRemote team hangout
Toggl PlanProject management with a kanban boardCapacity planning and allocationVisual timelines and reporting
Toggl TrackMonitor project progress and budgetsTrack employee hours to prevent burnoutGenerate monthly project reports

No more creeping your scope

Avoiding scope creep in project management can seem impossible, but it’s not a pipe dream.

Sure, sometimes you’ll still get demanding clients or change requests.

But by defining and communicating your capacity upfront in terms of boundaries, service costs, timelines, and extras, you’ll be equipped to handle this much better in the future.

You might even profit from it!

As long as you keep measuring and improving your performance.

Sean Collins

Sean is a Content Marketing Manager at Toggl and has been involved in the digital marketing space since 2017. Sean is on a mission to travel the world and fund it using his SEO and Content Marketing skills.

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