How To Manage Scope Creep in 5 Easy Steps

Illustration of a woman with six hands doing office work

Scope creep is the silent assassin assaulting project managers everywhere. Before you know it, your perfectly planned, totally manageable assignment becomes an ugly behemoth, keeping you in the office long after hours, awake at night, and generally stressed out of your mind.

Does it really need to be this way?

Is there a way to keep projects from constantly spinning out of control and reclaim power over your life and career?

That’s what we’ll explore in this blog post.

We’ll give you the exact definition of scope creep and explain the most common reasons why it occurs in projects of all kinds. Then we’ll share with you a five step process for managing it in the most effective way possible.

The Definition of Scope Creep

Most project management methodologies begin by defining a project’s overall objective and the work required to achieve that goal. Parameters are then set regarding what will and won’t be included as well as budgetary boundaries.

This is known as the project’s scope.

Projects and plans will inevitably change as they progress. Unforeseen circumstances will arise, teams will encounter numerous challenges along the way, and not everything will fall into place as originally planned.

This is normal and small adjustments are to be expected.

Scope creep is different. It’s when the boundaries set for a project are intentionally crossed.

For example, a company developing a new product with five key features decides to add a sixth part way through. Or a simple Facebook Ads initiative becomes a complete social media marketing overhaul.

Potential Reasons for Scope Creep

Scope creep can occur due to either internal or external forces. Let’s discuss a few of the most common reasons you may experience it.

1. No Clear Scope to Begin With

You wouldn’t take a cross country road trip without some level of direction, right?

Whether you bring an old fashioned, fold-out map or use the GPS on your phone, most of us would make sure we had some sort of guide before getting in the car and driving away.

Starting a project without a clearly defined scope is like trying to drive from Los Angeles to New York City without directions. Sure, you could try and follow street signs, but you’ll eventually make a wrong turn and lose your way. You may never even reach your final destination at all.

The same goes for project management. The scope keeps you on track and makes sure you don’t miss anything important. It’s basically your project roadmap. When everyone on your team understands where you’re headed, it becomes much easier to complete projects on time and within budget.

2. A Tendency to Over Deliver

Whether due to an uncontrollable desire to please or a perfectionist mentality, a tendency to over deliver is a scope creep epidemic just waiting to happen. You should always strive to do your best work, but going overboard can quickly derail an otherwise successful project.

As a manager at your company, you need to monitor your employees and ensure they aren’t wasting time and resources on tasks outside the scope of your current project.

If you notice this happening, have an honest talk with your team. Tell them you appreciate their initiative, but their utmost goal needs to be completing what’s been assigned to them within the timeframe and budget you’ve outlined.

3. Poor Management

Poor project management can also lead to scope creep. There are many ways this can occur. Here are a few:

  1. Management fails to provide their team with a way to catalog additional project requirements. These requirements pile up and get out of hand, causing projects to progress slower than planned.
  2. Management doesn’t provide adequate oversight and allows employees to green light change requests and project revisions themselves. You want to empower your team, but too many decision makers is a recipe for disaster.
  3. Management doesn’t monitor team performance and allows them to waste time and company resources on out of scope work.

These are just a few ways that poor management can bring about scope creep and doom a project. Avoid them at all costs!

4. Outside Factors

Finally, scope creep can also happen when project stakeholders — internal or external — demand changes mid-project. This is especially prevalent when said stakeholders are either detached from the project, or the work is beyond their area of expertise.

The tips listed below will help you manage scope creep when you experience this kind of pushback from either your boss or a client.

5 Easy Steps to Managing Scope Creep

Now that we’ve explained what scope creep is and the most common reasons it occurs, let discuss tips to manage it. There are five easy steps you can take to minimize scope creep and better handle it when it’s unavoidable.

1. Know Your Project Goals

Earlier we mentioned that the likelihood of scope creep rises when no clear scope is outlined at the very beginning of a project. When you and your team don’t have a target to aim for, goals you’re hoping to achieve, a project is almost guaranteed to get off track.

Clear and attainable goals are crucial to successful project management. They allow you to focus on the most important tasks, while not worrying about other, less relevant details. Shiny object syndrome (SOS) is easy to succumb to when no clear outcomes have been defined.

Start every project by defining its goals and you’ll experience much less scope creep.

2. Make a Plan

Goals are necessary, but by themselves, won’t make a project successful. You need to create a plan, with action steps, to get you from initial idea to completed project.

As an experienced project manager, you already know this. But did you also know that a strong plan is one of the best ways to prevent scope creep?

Not only will a plan help you focus on the necessary tasks needed to complete your project and not become distracted, but it will also ensure your entire team is on the same page.

Furthermore, your plan will help minimize future changes and revisions (the kind that could be classified as scope creep) from both clients (if you do work for external stakeholders) and upper management. Any ideas occurring after the plan has been made and agreed upon will clearly be beyond scope.

This way, even if you do experience scope creep, you won’t be found at fault, and for client projects, you can work out additional compensation for the increased workload.

3. Define a Scope Creep Process

Sometimes scope creep is impossible to avoid. The CEO of your company might have a midnight epiphany and the project just won’t be complete without a new development. Or your company’s client is adamant about receiving additional widget features, despite the extra cost it will incur.

Whatever the reason for scope creep, it will be much easier to manage if you have a standard process in place. Who has the authority to green light changes?

How will certain scope creep elements be handled and by whom?

Obviously, you can’t prepare for every eventuality.

Who knows what your crazy clients or eccentric CEO will come up with next? But you can have a few processes in place to prepare for at least a few general scope creep issues. From there, you can tweak the processes to fit the situation.

A standard process may look something like this:

  1. A specific form must be filled out to document change requests in writing.
  2. An analysis of the revision requests must be undertaken and the level of scope creep should be fully understood by management.
  3. Approval must be given by the main stakeholders/those in authority.
  4. Scope changes are approved in writing.

This simple four-step, scope creep process will save you a lot of hassle and headache when inevitable project revisions come along.

4. Use the Tools at Your Disposal

There are many technology solutions that can help you better manage projects before they get out of hand. Let’s discuss a few of them and their scope creep busting benefits:

Project Management App

A project management software like Airtable will allow you to present your project goals and plans to both employees and stakeholders in a highly visual and organized way. When everyone involved can see what the target is and what’s been achieved so far, scope creep is less likely to occur.

Communication App

When it comes to business communication tools, Slack is hard to beat. It will help you keep everyone involved with your project — employees and stakeholders — on the same page. Email, for all it’s benefits, isn’t always the best internal communication system. Messages are easily lost and buried in crowded inboxes. Slack allows for quicker collaboration. When the entire team is on the same page, scope creep isn’t typically a concern.

A Time Tracking App

A time tracking tool like Toggl Track will help you see how your team’s time is spent. While it may not help you avoid scope creep, it will help you become more productive. This will allow you to accomplish additional tasks more efficiently. Meaning project revisions will be completed quicker and closer to original deadlines.

5. Learn to Say No

Sometimes the only appropriate response to scope creep is to take a hard stand. Tell project stakeholders that what they’re asking for simply can’t be done. At least not at the budget and timeframe they’ve given you.

It’s much easier to say “no” when you’ve already implemented the first two steps mentioned in this article. If every stakeholder has seen and agreed to the project goals and plans, then scope creep falls on them.

If you simply can’t say “no”, for whatever reason, try these approaches instead:

  1. Give and Take: If new project requirements have been added, look to remove other, uncompleted tasks from the overall scope. Make sure whatever you take away is of equal time and monetary value to what’s being added. That way your project can remain balanced and on track.
  2. Start a List: Add every feature, upgrade, etc. that is rejected to a backlog of top priority items for the future. That way you can complete the project as originally determined, but stakeholder requests are also taken into account. It’s a solid compromise.
  3. Raise the Price: If you’re working on external projects, as in projects for clients, than scope creep needs to result in more payment. It only makes sense: more work equals greater compensation. This is actually really easy to ask for when the project terms have been agreed upon, in writing, at the very beginning of the project.

Is Scope Creep Always a Negative Thing?

Generally speaking, scope creep is something to avoid if at all possible. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always a bad thing. When handled properly, scope creep has a few benefits:

Higher Pay

If the scope creep is initiated by a client and you’ve done your due diligence beforehand outlining goals and a project plan, then scope creep should result in more pay as we previously mentioned. Who doesn’t want to earn more money?

We said it before, but it bears repeating: asking clients for more money when a project escalates past its original scope only works if the scope has been defined beforehand!

Improved Stakeholder Response

Both internal and external stakeholders will definitely be pleased if you’re able to deliver above and beyond what was asked of you. This is a fine line to walk. You don’t want to go over budget and miss deadlines. You also don’t want to wear yourself out and cause burnout.

But if there are any areas you can give a little extra and let the scope creep a manageable amount, it might be worth it. Your bosses will appreciate your hard work and your status will likely be lifted in their eyes.

A Learning Process

Finally, scope creep can be viewed as a positive if you learn from the experience. Thomas Edison famously said when asked about his failed attempts to create the lightbulb, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 things that do not work.”

This is a great attitude to take in regards to scope creep. Don’t look at it as a failure, but a learning experience. How can you grow and improve? What will you do next time to ensure your project stays on budget and meets its deadline? Use scope creep as an excuse to optimize your process and you’ll quickly turn a negative into a positive.

The Final Word on Scope Creep

Scope creep is inevitable, but by utilizing the tips and techniques outlined in this post, you can minimize it. You may even be able to benefit from it!

The key is to first identify the goals of your project. Then devise a plan to see those goals accomplished. When scope creep is unavoidable, it helps to have a standard management process in place. The sooner you develop one, the better.

It might also benefit you to invest in a few software tools. Project management, communication, and time tracking apps can go a long way towards preventing — or at least properly managing — escalating projects.

Finally, sometimes scope creep can be eradicated with a simple “no”. As the project manager, you have the best sense of what will and won’t work for a project. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns to stakeholders. If you simply can’t say no, at least look for a happy compromise.

Scope creep isn’t desirable. In a perfect world, every project would go exactly according to plan. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a fairy tale, but the process outlined in this blog will help you better manage scope creep and improve your project management skills!

January 11, 2019