How to Prevent Scope Creep & Keep Your Projects Profitable

The term ‘scope creep’ can strike fear in the hearts of project managers, business owners, and even clients. It can mean the difference between a profitable project and a business loss. Here's how to prevent scope creep from taking over your next project.

project growth can create scope creep

12 min. read

Between my years in the agency world and then as a freelancer, I’ve been responsible for making sure a lot of projects stayed on the rails. Scope creep was an especially evil enemy, and the term usually evoked its own soundtrack in my head.

You know, that terrifying, urgent, knife-slashing violin music from Psycho?

What is scope creep?

If you've ever managed a project or worked to deliver one, I’m sure you’re more than familiar with the dreaded scope creep. It’s when features, deliverables, or expectations slowly get added to a project without the budget or timeline being adjusted accordingly.

Project scope creep is like a leaky toilet. Each drop is not a big deal on its own but compounded over days, weeks, and even months and you end up with, well, a sh*t show.

Poorly managed, the effects of scope creep can transform profitable projects into losses, damage client relationships, destroy timelines, and can be very hard on the morale and motivation of your team members.

43% of all projects are challenged due to scop creep (late, over budget, and/or with fewer than the required features and fuctions

And speaking from personal experience, dealing with scope creep after the fact is one of the biggest nightmares of project management. It’s like being stuck smack dab in the middle of an angry, pitchfork wielding mob.

Your job as project manager is to make the client happy, keep your team focused, make sure the project stays on time and budget, and meet your own agency’s business goals. It’s an uneasy peace, one even the most experienced diplomat at the United Nations would find challenging to maintain.

That being said, controlling scope creep is probably the single most important responsibility of project management, whether that falls on you, or one of your team members. 

So, how can you prevent scope creep and avoid the angry pitchfork mob chasing you out of town?

In short, by managing expectations, communicating clearly, and documenting everything like you were Harriet the freaking Spy.

What causes scope creep?

Here are eight common ways that scope creep can, well, creep up on you and your team if you're not careful. Then, in the next section, I'll talk about how you can avoid it (or at least mitigate the risks involved). 

  1. Not getting clear on, and managing, client expectations and goals for the project
  2. Not keeping the project small and agile
  3. Not getting internal input on project scope 
  4. Not nailing down your responsibilities and obligations and/or the client's
  5. Not planning for change
  6. Not getting it in writing
  7. Not using project management software
  8. Not tracking staff time or upselling
  9. Not properly communicating to the client about how change requests will be evaluated
Scope creep can cost up to four times as much as initial development costs

How to prevent scope creep from taking over your next project

Understand the client’s objectives

Before you start entering a single project milestone in Basecamp, you need to be very clear on what the client wants, needs, and expects to achieve out of this project.

A discovery session between the client and key members of your team is a good way to accomplish this—it’s like a fact-finding mission so you can gather all the intelligence you need about your client, their business, their challenges, and the results they’re looking for.

If you’re scoping a large project, it’s a good idea to begin by selling the client on a paid upfront discovery, so you aren’t trying to define scope within a proposal when you don’t know what’s involved in the details.

This way you can take the proper time to plan any features or functionality, design interfaces, and if needed, create a rough prototype. Once everyone agrees on what you’re developing, you’ll be able to provide a more accurate estimate, and manage expectations.

Deeply understanding these parameters will help you develop the right deliverables, budget, and timeline for this project, and, ultimately, avoid scope creep. 

A discovery session can ensure your project scope fits the client’s expectations like a finely tailored suit. If it fits properly from the get go, they’re not going to come back three weeks later and ask you to hem the pants, move a button, or worse, change the fabric.

Break big projects into smaller projects

One of the most common causes of scope creep is biting off more than you can chew on project size. Small, bite-size chunks are safer to swallow and there’s less chance of choking.

It’s easier to define scope for small, straightforward projects, but large ones can easily balloon because it’s impossible to know what might emerge months down the road, the deeper you get into the weeds

Look at ways to break the project down into sprints, and plan and budget each of those as separate and distinct projects. Once you finish the first phase, it may inform changes or additions to the next phase, and this gives you the latitude to adjust accordingly.

Involve your team in scoping the project

Once you know what it is you’re going to do, you need to be sure you understand how it’s going to get done, and, just as importantly, how long that’s going to take.

I tried to make a habit of consulting my project team members before finalizing deliverables, timeline, and budget. These are the people who are the experts in what they do, and they’re the ones who are going to do the work, so why wouldn’t I consult with them?

But it’s surprising how often project managers, salespeople, and other client-facing professionals make promises to clients and assumptions about projects without ever checking with the people who are actually going to execute the work.

“Oh sure, we can get that done in a week, and it should only take about 25 hours,” could be the epitaph on many a project manager’s tombstone.

Through experience it does it get easier to estimate the requirements of a project but I still always wanted to double check with the designer, developer, or copywriter on my team because, inevitably, the thing I thought was pretty straightforward that might take 25 hours of work ended up having some twist in it that required double that amount.

Or sometimes the project team had considerations or suggestions that wouldn’t have occurred to me. Things that could either complicate or simplify the project, but still things that needed to be addressed up front, not after the fact when scope creep has made it costly or messy to deal with.

Clearly define the project and responsibilities

Now that you understand what the client needs and what you’re going to deliver, you need to communicate all of that back to your client and your team. There can be no ambiguity about what’s going to happen when, who’s responsible for doing it, how long it’s going to take, and how much it will cost.

To prevent scope creep, you need to be explicit at this stage. It may seem like a pain in the butt or that you're overzealous, but later when you can refer to that one point that saves your weary butt when the client complains that they expected four versions of a logo design when the budget clearly says it only includes two, you’ll be glad you were a little OCD.

Like I'm a four year old. Explain it to me

And clients will appreciate this, too. If they feel they understand exactly what’s going to happen, it will give them the confidence to trust your opinion, and they won’t try to micromanage you along the way.

There will be fewer annoying emails asking when something is going to be done, or angry phone calls wondering why something wasn’t done at all.

Another tip: go over all this information in person. Or at least by phone or Skype or something. Just don’t assume they read the document in detail and understand everything on their own. Go over it with them point by point so you know that they know. And they know you know they know.

Have a game plan for changes

Life is uncertain, imprecise, and fleeting. And so are clients.

The scope may change once you’ve already started on the project, so you need to be clear with the client what the plan of attack is for amendments before anything happens.

Define how change requests get made, who is responsible for them, how they get handled from a budget and timeline perspective, and what the implications are for the project overall.

Getting this all out in the open from the very beginning will help you manage your client's expectations and keep the project focused on its objectives. If a client fully understands the consequences of a change or addition to the timeline and budget, they’ll be less likely to make a cavalier request.

Get it signed

After you’ve gone over your very detailed project plan in person with your client and you’re certain they understand all the implications of how things are going to move forward, GET A SIGNATURE.

It’s standard to get a client to sign off when they accept a proposal, but it’s just as important to get their signature on the project plan or statement of work. Otherwise, you are leaving yourself open to potential scope creep carnage down the road.

I admit I wasn’t always vigilant on this. I naively assumed people were good on their word, and most of them are, but if they can find an escape route when they’re in a pinch, they’ll take it. Saying they didn’t understand something or weren’t aware of a particular condition so they can’t be held accountable is the perfect scope creep escape route.

But if you’ve gone over the project plan with your client in person and had them sign off that they understand and agree, then you’re covered for how any changes will be handled.

Basecamp it, baby!

I have been a Basecamp power user since 2007. When it was first introduced to me, I felt like a flock of project management angels floated down to save me from certain madness.

When I was working in an agency, Basecamp helped me manage every single aspect of a project and allowed me to sleep at night.

Once a project plan was in place and signed off, I dumped it all into Basecamp - every task, milestone, timeline, and additional resource. Then I invited everyone on the project, both on the client and agency side, to participate.

This kept everything in one place - drafts, proofs, comments, sign-offs, change requests, final files - EVERYTHING.

Basecamp also helped me manage my own team, making it easier for them to know what was happening with the project and what their daily tasks and responsibilities were.

Whether you’re a Basecamp user (I swear they’re not paying me for this plug) or you prefer different project management software, the point is USE ONE.

There are lots of great tools out there to help you stay organized and communicate with your client and team. Tools like Trello, Zoho, or Podio. If there's a magic wand to prevent scope creep, it's project management software.

But again, even the best tool is useless if you’re not consistently using it. If anyone on my team ever sent me something about a project via email or asked me a question on chat, I would always refer them back to Basecamp. Everything, EVERYTHING, went through Basecamp.

At one agency I even had a sign on the door that said, “Basecamp it, bitches” and if someone wandered into my office asking me about a deadline for something or where a file was, I would just point at the sign.

And Basecamp, if you’re listening, I <3 you.

I <3 u

Watch your team

To be fair, you can’t place all the blame of scope creep on the client.

I've worked on a few projects where someone on the project team went rogue and totally over-delivered on something.

There was one art director I worked with in particular who was notorious for this. I almost had to stand over him at all times to make sure he was only doing what we were contracted to do.

He’d do things like, if a project was to redesign product packaging, he’d decide on his own that the client’s logo was ugly and then spend 20 hours designing new logos options. Without telling me.

Or, even though I had consulted with him in the proposal stage about how long a certain task would take, he’d end up spending three times as long on it, and not because of an unknown issue that arose, but just because he was enjoying what he was doing.

The thing is, if he had come to me BEFORE he went ahead and spent 20 extra hours on new logos options and explained why he felt it was necessary, I might have been able to go to the client and upsell them on a new aspect of the project.

But because it happened afterwards, there was little chance of recouping those costs, or the subsequent delay in the timeline.

We all want to deliver great service and quality to our clients, but there is a fine line where over-delivery is actually costly scope creep.

Be sure your team is clocking their time in Harvest or some other time-tracking software so you can keep close watch before things things go over budget.

Stay in regular communication with your team members so you know the status of what they’re working on and how they’re doing time-wise.

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for a project change, but you want those to be opportunities for upselling, not scope creep, and the key to that is catching it BEFORE it happens.

Watch yourself

Not only do you need to keep an eye on your client and your team to prevent scope creep, but you also need to keep an eye on yourself.

You have to be vigilant about your own time; what you say yes or no to, whether it’s a request from the client or your team, and how you enable scope creep. Remember, you’re the gatekeeper.

There are times when you can easily accommodate small, reasonable changes. Not all project change requests cause scope creep. But when requests come in, you have to be very aware of which ones are going to have a minor impact on the budget or timeline, and which ones are going to lead to death and destruction.

You need to be clear to the client the difference between those so you don’t create false expectations that you can accommodate changes every single time without consequence.

Acceptance is the first step

Well, in this case, it’s the last, but the point is scope creep is always a looming threat, whether you like it or not.

There are a multitude of reasons why project change requests happen, and not all of them are necessarily bad. Or they don’t have to be bad as long as you have a plan in place for dealing with them.

Planning for how to handle scope creep should be a natural part of your both your proposal and project development process. In the end, it will protect your business, the client, the project, and ultimately, your sanity.

How to Prevent Scope Creep & Keep Your Projects Profitable

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