Keep Scope Creep from Undermining Your Project

Freelance digital project director Suzanna Hayworth, based in London, England, recalls the time that scope creep undermined one of her coding projects: A classic waterfall set-up, where a wireframes and design phase moved into the development state.

Scope Creep

Her team was building a frontend on top of a white-labeled backend from another agency. It turns out the other agency was constantly updating their build with new code, forcing Hayworth’s team to continuously update their own computer code, adding a layer of unexpected work to their job.

“We fell deeper and deeper into redeveloping the existing code—timelines got extended, we missed our deadline, and we came under a lot of pressure towards the end of the project,” she recalls.

Her team became demoralized, the client was unhappy and the project was delayed by a couple of months. “In the end, all we wanted was to wash our hands of it and forget it ever happened,” Hayworth says.

The Damage That Scope Creep Causes

Hayworth’s experience underlines the threat of scope creep. If a project’s scope is a list of everything you’ll produce in the project, and all the work you’ll do in the process, then scope creep is all the small, small requests that stretch the project beyond its original scope.

“It is the uncontrolled expansion to product or project scope without adjustments to time, cost and resources,” explains Oliver Yarborough, a project management and marketing expert who runs a LinkedIn Learning course on preventing scope creep. “Another way of looking at it is, scope creep requires you to do more work with the same amount of time and money as you originally estimated.”

For her part, Elizabeth Larson, with 30 years’ experience as a project manager or sponsor, and an advisor for Watermark Learning/Project Management Academy, says it boils down to authorized vs. unauthorized changes to project deadlines. Authorized changes cannot be scope creep but unauthorized ones are.

“Unmanaged scope creep can have very bad consequences,” says Larson, including missed deadlines, cost overruns, reduced quality of work and even projects imploding under their unfairly bloated weight.

In fact, project managers often cite scope creep as the leading cause of project failure. According to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession, their 10th annual project management survey, 52 percent of projects experienced scope creep. Even among the top performers surveyed, 33 percent of projects experienced some kind of scope creep.

About 15 percent of the projects undertaken by the surveyed project managers the previous year were deemed to be failures, and project budget losses were pegged at about 32 percent.

How Scope Creep Creeps Up on a Project

There are many different causes of scope creep. They can include:

  • Original project scope is poorly defined—If your project scope isn’t clearly spelled out—perhaps because the client is focusing only on end results—then things without a doubt will go out of control. The client might ask for things not included in your mind as part of the scope but clearly included in his or her estimation.
  • Not involving the client throughout the process—You can’t do a month or two of work and then send the results to the client for approval. Any issues they may have could cause your team a lot of extra work. Clients should be your partners, constantly kept in the look. And as project manager you should seek to proactively raise anything that might become an issue.
  • There’s no scope management process put in place—Since scope creep is a problem for almost every project, there needs to be a process in place to address it effectively. Without a way to record and deal with unrequested changes, you will let them add up, until the project management team is staggering dangerously under their weight.
  • Not fully reviewing new requests—In a pressured work environment, it sometimes seems easier to jump on a small, unexpected request and just do it. However, one small requests leads to another. Each one should be calmly and thoroughly considered, to ensure they must be done and see how they will affect the project.
  • Not prioritizing features or deliverables—If you don’t make priorities among features of a coding assignment or deliverable in another kind of project, then you won’t know what can be put on the back burner as a projects grows and changes. Flexibility comes from having a clear set of priorities that allows you to juggle and pivot successfully.

Yarbrough recalls one instance of scope creep, working for a wireless telecom on a project for a client who initially contracted the company to provide mobile devices for their sales people in the field, but then later asked to also get mobile devices for some of their inside staff.

“It sounds easy enough, right?” he says. “Well, it wasn’t. Mobile phones don’t always have strong signals inside buildings. As a result, you have to install hardware to boost the signal.”

The customer balked at paying for the additional work and equipment not covered by the original contract. Yarbrough got through the impasse by talking to the client about “their needs versus wants,” convincing them that just because the inside staff wanted mobile devices, they didn’t really need them.

<2>Ways to Manage Scope Creep

Some of the obvious ways to manage scope creep is to do the opposite of above: Prioritize features or deliverables, fully review new requests, put a well-thought-out scope management process in place, involve the client throughout the process and define the project scope thoroughly at the outset.

Besides these, other scope management strategies include:

  • Be transparent—If or when scope creep creeps up, bring it up immediately with clients, team members and stakeholders, so the issue can be addressed while it is manageable.
  • Embrace change—Changes to a project, and pivots, are inevitable. Keep your end goal in mind and do what’s necessary to achieve it.
  • Be analytical—Work out exactly how each change will affect a project, for good or bad, and then come up with workable solutions to adopt, mitigate or defuse them.

Larson adds that one of the best ways to prevent scope creep is to take a complex project and break it down into smaller parts, with their own deadlines. “Breaking it down can be tricky,” she says, “because there are a lot of interdependencies. It takes a lot of analysis,” as you keep in mind the overall project goals and how one part affects others.

And a client worried about a project running out of control will be mollified as the project management team hit the new deadlines for their more manageable project pieces.

Coping with Scope Creep in Construction Projects

Scope creep in construction projects is a given and a constant liability for construction firms, decreasing profitability and damaging their reputations along the way.

Construction Executive magazine lists some real world consequences of scope creep, including a contractor who sued a school district over unpaid bills arising changes in the project; a contractor and five of subcontractors who sued a California hospital over a $24 million project that included $16 million in additional costs because of change orders; and a construction firm that launched a lawsuit for extra fees over a boat ramp project, citing change orders, including the client’s request to move the location of the ramp twice.

Reasons for scope creep here can include a lack of understanding of the client’s real requirements, poor communication, not realizing the true work scope, failing to establish a system for dealing with change orders, not using proper contract procedures, and clients who are actually looking to get free work from a construction firm.

To better deal with scope creep, construction firms should:

  • Understand the client’s vision upfront—The best protection from scope creep is to thoroughly understand what the client wants at the beginning of the process. Don’t just ask about the specifics of the job but what the client’s vision for it is. Understanding this can help you anticipate how the job may grow beyond its original scope.
  • Spell out a clear estimate and scope—Outline all your processes and costs for completing a project, so a client understands, for example, how much new materials will cost for a change order. Once aware of costs, they may weigh every new request for changes more carefully. The signed contract should clearly spell out the scope of the project, for reference in case of disputes.
  • Set up strong lines of communication—Scope creep happens because of undocumented requests. So any requests for changes should be put in writing, so the construction firm has a document to refer to in the event of a legal dispute.
  • Put protocols in place—Figure out how to deal with changes in work scope before they happen. One good idea is to create addenda to the existing contract, detailing the expanded scope of work as well as payment terms and conditions.

Scope Creep Can Be Agile Too

The fundamental hallmark of agile project management is flexibility. The danger is, this flexibility—when there is a lack of scope definition and too much leeway given to stakeholders—can lead to scope creep, and attendant bloating of work hours, exhaustion of team members and rising costs, perhaps sinking the project before completion.

The truth is, change is essential to an agile project. It leads to the best development of a product in the time you have. But you have to manage the change wisely.

Again, this means carefully spelling out the scope of the project at the front end. In this context, scope is usually expressed in the form of user stories, or high-level requirements, in the product backlog. These requirements or user stories are prioritized based on things like cost, complexity and business value, and then are delivered during “sprints.”

The PM team could create a statement of work, outlining all the deliverables that will be delivered, with product goals and objectives, priorities, incremental delivery timeline, a breakdown of tasks and roles, pricing the cost of additional resources.

“So what actually counts as scope creep in an agile project?” asks Hayworth. “Since you should have the ability to change scope quite easily without throwing the whole project to the lions, scope creep in agile doesn’t really affect you until later down the line.”

Scope creep can come in as new features are added to a full backlog, and other tasks or features aren’t put on the back burner or depriortized, forcing the project management team to get extra busy during a sprint, leading to burnout if there is no break in the high work volume.

The project manager needs to keep their eye on what the business goals and product vision are and use these as a prism to understand priorities and plan accordingly. They should keep in mind that not all items on the backlog need to be developed, and those that do are developed incrementally, based on their level of priority.

They should also develop a communication plan to outline how information will be relayed to team members and stakeholders

One way to organize a collaborative project and its is to use a dynamic tool like monday.com, allowing you to build and customize dashboards to gain important insights and achieve a clear overview of your work and the status of priority items.

Scope Creep Doesn’t Have to Be All Bad

For all the harm that scope creep does, it can have an upside. For example, by going beyond the work scope (up to a reasonable limit) you can get more appreciative clients, and you get a chance to optimize your project management processes, using trying scope creep experiences to avoid similar problems in the future.

And best of all, you can also increase your revenue on a project, if you charge for the extra work you do.


—Peter Giffen is a writer and content developer who often does work for, and about, the technology sector.