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Masooma Memon

What is Scope Creep & How to Handle it in Your Projects

It's unrealistic to think that you can avoid scope creep completely, so make sure you understand how to manage it and minimize it for the best project outcomes.

Do your projects sometimes feel like a runaway train? Falling off the rails despite your best efforts thanks to changing requirements and scope creep?

Well, take heart, because you're not alone. Scope creep is an inevitable fact that all project professionals face.

“Things always change, on so many different levels,” admits Nicole Tiefensee, Runn’s Co-founder. Based on her years of experience in project management, Nicole states:

Before co-founding Runn, I worked in project delivery for many years - and I never, ever, in the entirety of my career saw a project start with a specific kind of scope and remain within exactly the same scope."

So if you are looking for a band-aid list of ways to prevent it in the first place, you’re never going to find it effective. As Nicole said, scope creep is impossible to avoid entirely. Every project will experience it to a greater or lesser extent.

The solution then is to anticipate scope changes and be prepared to deal with them — even, perhaps, make the most of them. In this guide, let’s show you how to do that. But first, let’s cover the basics: 

What is scope creep?

Scope creep is the slow but continuous change in a project’s requirements — increased workload, stretched timelines, and often going over the defined budget.

Left unchecked, the effects of scope creep plaguing one project can snowball to impact other projects’ timelines and budgets.

Changes in deliverables also impact resource allocation. For example, a last-minute change in project deliverables can mean you need to pull resources from another project to meet the changed requirements. 

What is the difference between scope change and scope creep?

Where scope creep involves unintentional changes to the determined ‘scope’ or requirements of a project, scope change is more intentional.

Essentially, unplanned or unintentional changes in scope are rarely foreseen.

Without an effective change management plan in place, these incremental adjustments to the project scope — particularly big ones — can wreak a lot of havoc on the project budget and timeline.

In contrast, scope change is a planned decision to make necessary changes to the project plan. This is why it doesn’t impact project timeline and budget as negatively as scope creep does. 

Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that scope creep and scope change are often used interchangeably.

There’s no harm in that. But it helps to understand that both terms have a small but meaningful difference. 

Examples of scope creep

A couple of scope creep examples that’ll sound familiar to you: 

  • A website development project for six pages extends to ten pages.
  • A product development project that starts with a desktop app but goes on to include creating a mobile app as well.
  • An increase in the number of deliverables in a content project. For example, email and social media copy on top of blog content.

Why avoid scope creep?

Uncontrolled scope changes are unhealthy for both the project and resources involved. They can lead to delays or missed deadlines, and overworking project staff.

Here are four more reasons why you need to keep scope creep in check:

  • It disrupts deep work. Scope creep is distracting, often shuffling items on team members’ to-do lists. A set scope, on the other hand, gives them more time for focused work — resulting in higher-quality deliverables.  
  • It has a knock-on effect on other projects. Constantly changing timelines have a ripple effect on other projects’ timelines. Controlled scope creep, however, ensures delivery timelines aren’t compromised by a stretch.  
  • It can damage your organization's reputation. Lateness, delays, and disorganization are a bad look. If you start to develop a reputation for being unreliable as a company, unable to meet agreed deadlines, this can damage your business prospects.
  • It can lead to dissatisfied employees and clients. Project managers who tactically manage change also win stakeholder and employee satisfaction. But if scope creep is out of control, staff will feel like the work is never done, and clients will be frustrated by the haphazard way their work is being handled.

So, what causes scope creep?

A handful of reasons — from poor planning to unrealistic timelines and unclear goals — play a role here.

Here’s a rundown of the causes behind scope creep. Make sure you reference this list now and then to identify which of these factors contributes the most to scope changes on your end:

1. Unclear project objectives

Scope creep is guaranteed when stakeholders aren’t clear about the project’s goals and objectives from the get-go.

Think about it: what are the odds of the requirements remaining the same if the vision isn’t well-defined? Poor, aren’t they?

If clients aren’t forthcoming, prod and prompt them to discuss their ideal requirements with you.

From there, conduct market research and host brainstorming sessions with stakeholders to clearly define the project vision, goals, and objectives. Only proceed with the project once you’ve clarity on these. 

2. Poor planning

A lot of scope creep surfaces from poor project planning. This can include:

  • Not taking the time to draft out project requirements, timeline, budget, and resources
  • Not putting enough time into documenting potential project risks and solutions to deal with
  • Mentally planning the project or keeping it siloed between a handful of people instead of documenting and making it accessible

It’s also possible you could be getting the above three right but favoring optimism over realism. This happens when you set up unrealistic project schedules or fail to factor in resources’ utilization rate.

Here’s everything you need to know about adequately planning projects:

3. Poor communication

Thorough plans are often useless when team communication is poor.

This holds true even as you share your project documentation including a summary of the objective and requirements.

Why? Because you need to verbally communicate:

  • Each team member’s responsibility
  • The budget and time they’re allowed to spend
  • The timeline by which they should be hitting specific project milestones
  • The steps they should take should they encounter a roadblock 

4. Lack of a dedicated project manager

A leading reason behind poor or unrealistic planning and ineffective communication is the lack of a dedicated person handling project management.

Even if your team doesn’t have a specific project manager, look toward the one leading the team for planning projects.

The reason is simple: without thorough oversight, the project’s focus is going to be poorly defined, causing consistent directional changes. 

5. Poor stakeholder management

Admittedly, managing stakeholders is no easy feat.

Late buy-in, in particular, is another prominent factor at the heart of scope creep.

Similarly, differences in stakeholders’ opinions is another issue. Pair that with a lack of a dedicated person overseeing stakeholder management and you’ve the recipe for way too many unnecessary changes to the project scope. 

6. Unsystematic project process 

The last reason behind scope creep is a chaotic project process — one that doesn’t prioritize steps according to their importance.

For instance, when sourcing end-user feedback comes last, you risk putting the entire project at the mercy of significant scope change.

Another example of a disorganized project process is one that doesn’t frontload stakeholder buy-in.

In cases like these, customer or client feedback coming at the end means you’ll need to adjust the deliverables or tasks in progress based on their requirements. This subsequently calls for a changed scope, sometimes even requiring major changes. 

Can scope creep ever be good for project success?

Scope creep causes delays and budget overspending — even contributes to burnout among employees if managed poorly. 

However, some changes to a project's scope are inevitable. So you might as well see the bright side to it, even if often the brightness is a little dull. 

For example, scope creep is sometimes the factor making room for creativity in a project. It can sometimes also help you catch problems in a project deliverable before it’s late. 

To drive these benefits of scope creep though, you need to make sure the scope changes are well-documented and thoughtfully executed.

That is: instead of going with any and every requested change, commit time to thinking how the change can help you materialize the project vision.

Ask yourself:

  • Would the deliverable(s) be better off without the change?
  • What difference would making this change have?
  • How will the change impact the end user?
  • Is the change really necessary?

Objectively answering these questions takes constantly monitoring the requested changes against the project vision, budget, and scope baseline.

Once you’ve settled on the need for the change, determine the degree of change needed and chalk out an action plan to achieve it.

Remember: pausing to think through and documenting the requested change in scope assists in efficiently controlling project changes.

Documenting also lets you reflect on the scope changes in your project retros. In turn, helping you avoid and better prepare for scope creep in future projects. 

4 proven ways to manage scope creep

Realistically speaking, you won’t be able to prevent scope changes altogether. They are all but inevitable.

However, by taking these steps, you’ll be able to reduce the odds of scope change significantly:

1. Dedicate time to thorough project planning and documentation

Make sure there’s a person responsible for all the work that goes into planning the project including:

  • Specifying project goals and objectives
  • Defining roles and responsibilities
  • Allocating resources and planning project budget
  • Breaking the project down into phases and tasks
  • Creating a realistic project schedule with buffer time factored in
  • Identifying anticipated risks and potential solutions to deal with them

From there, document everything into a work breakdown structure so you’ve the project scope in place.

But before you make it accessible to your team members, share it with your clients.

Host a scope setting call to walk them through the project requirements and get them on the same page. This way, the client will have clarity on the deliverables and know how the budget will need to be adjusted in case they want to make additions to the scope.

2. Prioritize effective communication

This is important for both new teams and those with strong team cohesion.

Without clear communication, your staff would unknowingly jump out of scope, entertaining extra, unbudgeted-for client requests.

So the secret to effective comms? Understanding each team member’s communication style.

Talk to them to learn what their preferred communication method is. Encourage team members (working closely together) to do the same so that they can effortlessly work together while keeping easily avoidable project roadblocks at bay.

Also, observe each member’s interactions. Adapt your approach to communicating with them based on their behavior.

Another tip for productive comms: always overcommunicate instead of under-communicating.

Create a project-specific communication channel. And make sure your updates are short and easily digestible. This way, they’ll be less likely to get lost in the sea of messages and more likely to get project members’ attention.

3. Use the RACI chart to manage stakeholders

The Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed (RACI) chart helps you manage stakeholders.

Essentially, it’s a framework to determine which project stakeholders have the greatest influence and how you need to coordinate with them.

Start with listing all your stakeholders. Then bundle them based on their influence/power and interest or stake in the project you’re managing.

Once you do that, you can understand how to communicate with them. For example:

  • Closely manage stakeholders who have significant power and high interest in the project
  • Satisfy stakeholders with significant power but low interest by making them feel important 
  • Regularly update stakeholders with low power but significant interest
  • Regularly monitor stakeholders with low power and low interest

Here are more tips to manage stakeholders effectively. 

4. Create a culture of psychological safety and transparency

In addition to communicating well, work on creating a culture that encourages open communication.

One way to do so is to encourage managers and leaders to be transparent. Giving team members access to project data is a helpful solution to this end.

At the same time, actively build a work environment where team members including juniors and new hires:

  • Aren’t afraid of making mistakes and learning from them
  • Feel safe to ask whatever questions they have and seek help as needed

This way, employees won’t hesitate to suggest preventative measures for saving projects from major scope changes down the line. 

Key takeaways

To wrap up, controlled scope change can benefit projects — often helping you catch roadblocks and holes in deliverables before it’s too late.

But to make the most of project scope creep, make sure you’ve a plan in place to objectively review requested changes and effectively execute the needed ones.

At the same time, keep working on your team’s communication and cohesion. Because a culture that promotes open communication, transparency, accountability, and mistakes goes a long way in delivering innovative work.

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