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Scope Creep: What It Is, Examples, and How To Avoid It

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Scope Creep: What It Is, Examples, and How To Avoid It

What is scope creep?

To understand what scope creep is, we first need to know the definition of “scope”. The Cambridge Business English Dictionary defines scope as “the range of things that an activity, company, law, etc. deals with.” Basically, a project’s scope is the amount of time, resources, and budget you’ve put aside for it.

The “creep” part of scope creep means expanding outside the project’s dedicated boundaries. Just as an invasive plant might “creep” away from its original plot and take over your garden, an out-of-control project can creep into every aspect of your daily life. 

Imagine you’re a freelancer, or a small agency, and a prospective client has approached you about a new project. The client is a little vague on the details; even after you ask them for more information, you still come away not quite sure exactly what they’re looking for. “No problem,” you think, “I’ll figure it out.”Then the project starts. You hand in your first deliverable, and it turns out they were actually looking for something a bit different. They just need a little more work here, a little more there. You wouldn’t mind completing it, right? It should really only take you five minutes. 

The consequences of scope creep

Before you know it, things have spiraled out of control. You’ve worked ten hours longer than you planned to, and you’re now out of time and out of budget. The runaway project spills over into your free time, taking your attention away from other clients and your personal obligations. You end up feeling angry and frustrated. Your schedule is a mess, and the amount you’ve earned is pitifully inadequate compared to the number of hours you’ve put in.

What you’ve just experienced is called scope creep. It’s a problem for freelancers, project managers, and agencies alike. The good news is, with time, experience, and a little strategic thinking, you can learn to manage scope creep. The following piece will go over examples of scope creep and how you can ensure it doesn’t take over your time.

Learning to identify scope creep

If a project’s requirements have changed over time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing scope creep. Scope creep implies that the changes were unexpected, unauthorized, and have taken you by surprise.

If a client asks for two blog posts per month, and then later decides to add on a newsletter for an additional fee after both parties have agreed, that’s not scope creep. 

If a client asks for two blog posts per month, and then tells you they expect you to optimize the blog posts for search engines, find images, and post them on their website and social media—none of which were ever discussed—without any additional pay, that would be scope creep.

Ultimately, scope creep is a misalignment between client expectations and contractor expectations. It usually stems from miscommunication, or underestimating what a project really requires.

Why is scope creep so harmful?

From the scenarios above, you can already see how scope creep might be harmful. No one likes losing time, losing money, or feeling out of control.

Here are some of the specific consequences of scope creep:

Wasted resources

Scope creep is a waste of time and resources—not just for service providers, but for clients too.

Picture this: You’re a client who is ready to pay for a service. Like many clients, you aren’t sure exactly what you need, and expect that the service provider will guide you along the way. Some miscommunication happens, and they come back with something that’s not at all what you expected. 

You want them to change it, or add some components that you thought would be included. They refuse, telling you the changes will incur an extra fee. You’re now angry, and feel like you’ve spent money on something you don’t even want.

On the other side, the service provider is also upset. They’ve wasted time creating something they thought you wanted. Scope creep truly is a lose-lose situation. 

Missed deadlines

Scope creep can also lead to missed deadlines. If you planned for something to take one hour and it actually takes five hours, you or your team will have to either work overtime or ask the client for a deadline extension. If not properly managed, these unexpected delays can spiral, ultimately culminating in project failure.

Poor morale

Scope creep lowers morale and makes everyone involved feel bad. Within a team, scope creep can lead to resentment and frustration, harming the company’s culture. For individuals, the interpersonal stress and overwork caused by frequent scope creep can put you on a fast track to burnout

Disorganization

Finally, unrestrained scope creep can cause chaos in your work life. Who likes the idea of pulling together last-minute changes at 3 a.m., working through their lunch break, or letting one problematic client derail all their other projects? 

If left unchecked, that’s exactly what scope creep can do to your schedule.

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Examples of scope creep (and their causes)

Scope creep is a fact of life in many industries. Some of the most high-profile examples come from construction, where projects all too often go over time and over budget. The Basilica of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona has famously been under construction for well over 100 years!

Depending on industry and project, scope creep can happen for different reasons. Here are major causes of scope creep, with examples.

Ambiguous scope

Creative professionals sometimes encounter clients that have unrealistic expectations, or don’t know exactly what they want. This can lead to a project beginning without a clear scope: without clear expectations of what the final deliverable is. This in turn can lead to endless requests for changes. You can find real-life stories shared anonymously online by freelance designers at Clients from Hell.

Poor planning

Poor planning can lead to overpromising—often accompanied by underdelivering. This often originates in a lack of experience and knowledge about the resources needed to complete a certain task or project.

An experienced web developer, for example, has a rough idea of how long it will take her to create a basic website—and knows how many steps are involved. An experienced marketing director knows how many human resources are necessary to create a social media campaign—certain more than one social media manager. If you lack the intuitive knowledge that comes with experience, then you can plan more effectively by doing research on the type of work you’re expected to complete, and how many hours of labor (from how many individuals) it requires.

Poor communication between stakeholders

Sometimes scope creep happens because the miscommunication happens not at the beginning of the project, when the scope is defined, but during the middle. Projects are subject to change for many reasons—as long as these changes are documented and accounted for, they don’t have to mean scope creep. But if the involved parties aren’t communicating with each other, it can lead to misaligned expectations and disappointments all around.

Project length and complexity

Another example from construction is Eleftheria Square on the island of Cyprus, a big-ticket project designed by famous architect Zaha Hadid. The new square finally partially opened in 2021—nine years after the first deadline was missed, at a cost that was €17 million more than expected.

Construction projects are prone to scope creep because they tend to be very complicated. From technical problems to disagreements with contractors, and even archaeological finds, it’s difficult to control everything that can possibly go wrong.

This last factor suggests something significant about scope creep: that you can’t necessarily control every aspect of a project, and that sometimes scope creep happens due to reasons beyond your control. 

Avoiding scope creep isn’t about maintaining perfect control over everything, but controlling what you can to minimize damage where you can’t.

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How to avoid scope creep

While you may not be able to eliminate scope creep 100% of the time, you can seriously decrease the likelihood of scope creep by making some quick changes to your process. Here are some tips to help you avoid scope creep:

Clearly define the project scope

The best time to tackle scope creep is right at the beginning of your project. Contractor and client should be on the same page about how things will work before the work starts.

Be sure to get any agreement you make in writing. Ideally, you’ll want to use a formal contract. Here’s what your contract should cover:

  • How much work or how many products are included in the price? 

    • Is there anything not included in the price?
  • What are the deadlines for both the client and service provider?

    • When are you expected to deliver the work, and when are they expected to send payment?
    • What happens if a deadline is missed?
  • How does the collaboration process work?

    • What kind of information is the client expected to provide at the beginning of the project?
    • How often will the client be asked for feedback or approval?
    • How will you account for changes, either from the client end or the service provider end?
    • What will the service provider do to ensure client expectations are met?

Create flexibility and wiggle room where needed

If you come across a project that you’re not sure how to estimate for, try to imagine the maximum amount of time it could take, and quote and set your deadlines accordingly. It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than the other way around.

Also, don’t forget to have a process in place for increasing the project scope if you need to. Remember, it isn’t scope creep if both parties are happy with the changes. If your client wants to hire you for more work, as long as they’re prepared to pay a new fee and set a new deadline, there shouldn’t be any problem. 

Make sure everyone has the right information

While scope creep certainly poses a challenge for individual freelancers, it can be even more difficult for teams. In a team situation, you may have a scenario where the people funding the project, the people planning the project, and the people working on the project are all disconnected. This creates additional risks—what if team members start doing extra work every now and again to please the client, without realizing this isn’t included in the project budget?

Communication is key to preventing scope creep in a team setting and ensuring everyone remains informed. You’ll want to make sure everyone is onboard and knows what’s going on; this might mean setting up a communication chain or a series of regular meetings. Consider hiring or assigning a dedicated project manager, if you haven’t already.

Plan better with time tracking

It’s nearly impossible to manage scope creep unless you have a reliable way of estimating how long a project will take. 

How do you set a deadline if you don’t know how much time your work will take? That’s where time tracking comes in, to help you plan more accurately and set the right expectations.

For example, how long do you think it takes to write a blog post? According to Orbit Media Studios’ 7th Annual Blogging Survey, the average blog post took about four hours to write in 2020. But this number can vary widely, depending on the subject matter and the amount of research required.

When charging for blog posts, professional writers need to consider a lot of factors other than just pure writing time. Time spent making edits, communicating with the client, and acquiring the client in the first place all need to be factored into the final deadline and price—so tracking time each day is essential.

Having visibility over time is also very important for employees as well as contractors, because it makes it easier to communicate how long each task really takes. If your boss thinks completing a certain task takes 20 minutes, when you know based on past experience that you need closer to five hours, time tracking data can help you make your case.

Employees, freelancers, and teams can all benefit from using a time management tool like Toggl Track. Not only will it help you understand where your time is going each day and week, you can also use it to set up an hourly time estimate for a specific project. You’ll receive notifications when you’ve nearly reached your allotted time, making it clear when a project exceeds the original estimate—so you can say goodbye to scope creep once and for all.

"How do you set a deadline if you don’t know how much time your work will take? That’s where time tracking comes in, to help you plan more accurately and set the right expectations."

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