Scope creep is a rampant problem that almost any service provider or freelancer has encountered while handling a project. Especially in the software and website development sphere, scope creep can have serious consequences on your time, productivity, and profit margins.
As a project manager, until you understand the scope of the project you are about to embark on thoroughly, you cannot curb or manage scope creep.
In this article, we will explore what scope creep means and the common causes. You will also see examples of scope creep in website project management and practical ways to avoid it.
What is the Scope of the Project?
As the name suggests, the scope of the project (or scope of work) refers to the work plan, steps, processes, key deliverables, and requirements needed to start and complete a project. Having a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for your projects is an easy way to identify all the specifications, milestones, activities, cost, budget, boundaries, and project schedule that make up the project scope.
All these will help you and your client define the scope of the project before setting out. It is best to have this reduced to a project statement that serves as an easy reminder as work on the project progresses.
Failure to define your project scope in client interviews might not only result in scope creep but in a final product that is entirely different from what the client envisioned.
What is Scope Creep?
Scope creep, also known as feature creep, is an addition or deviation request from the original scope of a project. This is not to say that changes to the scope are not welcomed. But, you need to curb these change requests so that it stays in line with the project scope as those changes affect the project schedule, resources, budget, productivity, time, and cost.
Scope creep becomes particularly unbearable when clients or stakeholders add new project features or requirements after the project has commenced. This can be detrimental when your team is expected to complete the project within the original schedule, budget, and resources.
Much like the meaning of the word creep, it usually starts with minor requests that gradually influence the purpose of the project and cause you problems. Uncontrolled changes to the scope of a project can make you go over budget easily. This will affect your profit margin, cause you to miss deadlines, and cause you to deviate from what the client really wants. All of this can be disastrous to your reputation.
If you don’t define the scope of your project accurately, it’s easy for your project to grow beyond its original expectations.
Common Causes of Scope Creep
Scope creep occurs for several reasons and it can arise as a fault of either the client or the project team. Scope creep can affect web designers, developers, and entrepreneurs. Here are some of the common causes of scope creep.
Ambiguous or Undefined Project Scope
Lack of clarity in the definition of the scope of a project is the easiest way to encourage scope creep. As a project manager, you must understand the processes and requirements necessary to complete the project. Otherwise, the final product will deviate from the intentions of your client.
Sometimes clients are to blame for the ambiguity of project scope as they do not have a definite idea of what they want. It takes proper project management communication to guide such a client to a clear vision. A client “wanting to figure it out” as the project proceeds is a clear sign of possible scope creep in the future.
Sidestepping Project Management Practices
It is one thing to have a project scope and management practice but it is another thing to adhere to the practice. Sidestepping your project management practices for minor change requests would encourage scope creep.
For instance, your client asks you for a minor change in the theme colors of a web page. Such a change won’t take you an hour to effect so you might be tempted to implement it outside the laid-down practice. However, this is how scope creep slips in and can accumulate over time.
Following project management practices will also help keep you on track while preventing even approved feature requests from deviating the project from the original goal.
Undocumented or Ambiguous Agreements
Reducing all correspondences and agreements with a client into writing is a great way to limit scope creep. An easy way to document your communications with clients is by ensuring important communications are done through emails and not through calls. Or by requesting agreements reached through physical meetings and calls be reconfirmed through emails.
Also, having a flexible contract containing the mutually agreed terms, conditions, and obligations of your project is a great way to ensure clarity and discourage unnecessary feature requests from clients. But ensure that all documentation is unambiguous and unequivocal so none of the parties are under any misguided impression.
Unregulated Process of Feature Request
Change during the project is usually unavoidable. As an expert project manager, creating room for improvement is practical. Any feature request must be in line with processes that ensure that cost, resources, and time are accounted for.
Apart from client requests, sometimes project teams may focus on adding extra features to impress clients. This must follow the proper channels to be sure it does not backfire and cost you money and time.
Be sure to make the process for additions flexible so it does not suppress creativity but still curbs scope creep. A proper structure for incorporating requests will eliminate unwanted delays and unsatisfied clients.
Multiple Project Stakeholders Without Unanimous Goals
This cause of scope creep usually occurs when the client has multiple persons overseeing various aspects of a project. Usually, each person will have different ideas or perspectives about how the project should be carried out.
This is a classic case of having ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ if not managed properly. When a client has multiple persons with decision-making powers over a project, they must be in uniformity of vision to avoid scope creep issues.
As a project manager, you must be aware of this discord and ensure synergy among stakeholders before embarking on any change request from one of the stakeholders.
Other causes include:
- Lack of a project statement
- The client interview is informal and vague
- Unrealistic budget and time frame
- Change in management of client company
- Vague or ambiguous client vision
- Inefficient project management
- Communication gaps with the client
Examples of Scope Creep
Although scope creep usually comes as unapproved change requests, this is not always the case. Authorized requests can also cause the same issues if not recognized as scope creep early on.
Below are three examples of scope creep to help you identify them in practical scenarios.
Example 1: Stalled Content
Consider an eCommerce company approaches your website development company to create a WordPress website. You had your client interview and the project scope has been approved by both parties. You have also provided a procedure for a minor change request, if necessary.
However, in the requirements for the web project, the client insisted on providing the content for the eCommerce website and declined to use your additional services of providing website content. The website is projected to launch in two months. Content delivery by the client is scheduled 3 weeks before the launch.
The client fails to deliver the web content at the scheduled date. There has been no communication from the client until 5 days before the scheduled launch. The client finally reaches out and proceeds with a request for web content development and review, with the expected cost implications but without an extension in the scheduled launch date.
This is scope creep and if approved will likely have similar consequences as an unapproved one. Unless there is a significant consideration in project time delivery, it would put a strain on your productivity, human resource, and possible launch delay.
Example 2: Denver International Airport
Now to a real-life example of scope creep: The Denver International Airport (DIA) saga. It is quite famous as it shows how dangerous scope creep can get. The airport project to create a fully automated baggage handling system had over 2,000 design changes. The project, while finishing 16 months later than scheduled and 250% over budget, still eventually failed.
The main cause of scope creep in the design stages was the result of not involving all relevant stakeholders in the planning stages, such as the airlines. The luggage handling system also failed due to essential project concerns being ignored.
From this, we can observe lapses from both the client and the project team. Project managers must prioritize the creation of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) when generating the scope of a project. It is imperative, as seen in this example, that the client and all stakeholders are on the same page before proceeding.
Example 3: Design Revisions
Consider a client that needs their website designed but has no idea whatsoever about what the final product should look like. The client says “when I see what I like I’ll know” while contributing nothing definitive to the planning process.
In the design stage, you submit the current designs to the client, and they are unsatisfied as nothing seems to capture what they like. The client continues requesting revisions on the design, thereby frustrating the whole project. A few days to the projected launch a design is approved and you are expected to still deliver the website in time for the launch.
From this example, it is apparent that vague instructions from a client are bound to lead to scope creep which comes in form of endless revisions. This frustrates your productivity and resources with a possibility of a delay.
How to Avoid Scope Creep
Scope creep is a major cause of projects going over budget and being delayed; particularly, in the software, website design, and development world. By curbing at least unauthorized changes, your projects will witness a significant improvement in productivity, profit margins, and time management. This leaves you with ample time to attend to essential change requests from clients.
The following are the 5 best ways to keep scope creep from ruining your projects:
1. Keep a Record of Project Requirements
Although it seems intuitive, documenting the project requirements from clients is not always done. Keeping a record of your project requirements allows you to clearly define the scope of your project.
Start with a client consultation to figure out what your client needs. Once you have documented the project requirement from your client meeting, be sure to share it with all parties involved. The document should also contain all the necessary information to keep track of project progress.
Note that the requirements should be prioritized according to their importance, as all requirements might not be possible. This helps to keep your team in check by preventing them from wasting time focusing on unimportant or impossible tasks.
2. Set Up a Change Request Procedure
Regardless of how well-prepared your project scope is, it is only practical to expect that there would be changes as the project progresses. This is why you must include clauses that provide for change request procedures in your contracts with clients.
This change request procedure will help you manage the likelihood of unexpected scope creeps. But for this to work, the procedure must be adhered to strictly. Otherwise, this process becomes useless. Also, include appropriate cost and time implications for change requests to discourage frivolous requests from clients and maintain profit margins.
Setting up this procedure is very easy once a request is made. The basic procedure steps are review, approval or rejection, and incorporation to follow. Do not be afraid to say no to change requests when the situation demands. However, clearly explain reasons why a certain request may not be granted and provide alternatives.
3. Involve Stakeholders in the Project Scope Process
Good communication with all the stakeholders is necessary when creating the scope of the project. As a project manager, it is essential to confirm that you have gathered and understood all the requirements of the stakeholders. By sharing your requirements documentation with the stakeholders, you are eliminating possible confusion later on. So, take enough time to review the project scope as much as possible.
Also, ensure the various stakeholders understand the procedures and implications of requesting a feature change after the completion of the project scope. Not involving the stakeholders can mar the project, as stakeholders could bring major requests during the project development. And if the stakeholders are usually unavailable to contribute significantly to the project scope, regular reminders are advisable as you progress with the project.
4. Carry Project Team Members Along
As much as it is important to keep stakeholders in the loop, making sure your team members are also kept in the loop is equally important. Team members must be aware of the change request procedure and how it will affect them.
There is a tendency for scope creep to come from your team members to over-deliver and impress clients. By ensuring team members are aware of the project scope and statement, you can prevent them from going overboard. This way, you do not deviate from the agreed project statement through unauthorized changes on your end.
5. Be Proactive
One of the best ways to avoid scope creep is by anticipating the areas where it might arise in a project. Then put methods in place to curb that scope creep. By being proactive, you stay ahead of possible changes and do not get caught off guard with last-minute changes from clients.
Sometimes, change requests are reasonable and predictable. As a proactive project manager, you can suggest these changes for client and stakeholder confirmation early on. Rather than wait for clients to request these changes much later in the project where it might be very inconvenient.
Like in Example 1, as a web developer where it is obvious the client would delay in supplying the website content, you can be proactive and have content drawn up and sent to the client for confirmation. To avoid the last-minute requests that would extend the project schedule or cost you significantly more later.
Scope creep is a major reason why most projects fail or experience delays and a rise in costs. It is important as a project manager that you understand not only the impact of scope creep but be able to identify and prevent it before it happens. Changes during a project are not inherently bad; however, they must be scrutinized and managed so that they do not derail and delay the project from its goal.
Keep in mind the causes and examples of scope creep shared in this article. It will help you recognize the patterns whenever it surfaces. Then you can apply one of the 5 best ways to avoid scope creep in your next project.
Get the bonus content: How to Get Website Content From Clients
Kristen has been writing tutorials to help WordPress users since 2011. As marketing director here at iThemes, she’s dedicated to helping you find the best ways to build, manage, and maintain effective WordPress websites. Kristen also enjoys journaling (check out her side project, The Transformation Year!), hiking and camping, step aerobics, cooking, and daily adventures with her family, hoping to live a more present life.