Project Management

24 minute read

The Definitive Guide to Scope Creep

Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

Have you heard about the Denver International Airport (DIA) project of the 90s?

The city of Denver set out to build a new, state of the art airport to replace the Stapleton International Airport. It was scheduled to open in October 1994, and it had a budget of $2 billion.

Unfortunately, schedules do not always go according to plan. DIA’s certainly didn’t.

The project opened 16 months late and came in at nearly 250 percent over budget at a whopping $4.8 billion.

The icing on the cake? Combine the maintenance of the empty airport and the interest on the construction loans and you’ll see that Denver was paying $1.1 million per day during the delay.

You’re probably wondering how the hell this happened.

According to case studies, the overarching cause of the delay was numerous (and undocumented) scope changes insisted on by United Airlines. To be specific, there were around 2,100 design changes.

Regardless of the ridiculous number of changes, the airport failed massively due to the complexity of its baggage system (the product of the 2,100 design changes).

This, my friends, is a prime example of what scope creep can do to a project. And this is the topic of this blog post -- scope creep.

What exactly is scope creep anyway?

scope creep funny

To understand scope creep, you first have to understand scope.

Project scope refers to your project’s defined boundaries.

It should include specifics such as:

  • Specific project goals
  • Detailed descriptions of the deliverables that need to get done
  • Deadlines by which certain deliverables will be completed
  • Tasks that need to get done and by who
  • Milestones or deadlines for each deliverable
  • Costs for the project or each line item of the project

Anything that falls outside of your project’s scope can lead to scope creep.

Scope creep is the uncontrolled expansion to project scope without adjustments to time, cost, and resources.

To be more specific, “scope creep is the uncontrolled expansion to project scope without adjustments to time, cost, and resources,” according to the PMBOK Guide.

Scope creep is kind-of like a frog in hot water.

The frog will not notice it’s in hot water until it’s nearly too late, and he’s already boiling. Like the frog, you usually won’t know scope creep has happened until it’s too late and an overrun or delay(s) has occurred.

Scope creep pops up a lot in review meetings with stakeholders or customers. During the review, a stakeholder or customer may request a change of a project goal or deliverable that will cause additional, unplanned work.

It occurs when said goal or deliverable is changed without adjusting the project schedule or resources.

Nearly 50 percent of projects experience scope creep, and only 57 percent finish within budget while only 51 percent are finished on-schedule.

While scope creep is a never ending battle during projects, expect it will happen, and watch closely for the signs so you can manage it.

But what if your boss asks you, how the hell are you supposed to tell her “No?”

With so many different stakeholders working on a project, you’ll need to walk a fine line between saying “No” and delivering what your client (or boss) really wants.

What scope creep isn’t

To make key stakeholders happy (which means you keep your job), you’ll need to take a minute and assess every new request before immediately brushing them off as scope creep.

It’s not scope creep if a change to the project occurs and...

The project details haven’t been confirmed yet

When you’re still in the early stages of planning, your client should feel free to bounce ideas around and re-think their decisions with your expertise, especially if it’s your first time working together.

They may want to focus on Instagram marketing even though you’ve done research about their target audience on Facebook. Since you haven’t started content for either site, it’s not difficult to accommodate the switch early on.

However, it would be scope creep if your client requests new work to replace work your team has already completed.

So using the same example, if you were tasked with writing Facebook copy and completed all the posts, but your client wanted to shoot a campaign for Instagram using the same budget and deadline instead.

The changes won’t create additional work or expense for anyone

Simple swaps that take the same amount of time or effort aren’t considered out of scope because they’re not detracting from the main goal.

If your client wants to change the color of their logo from purple to blue while you’re still in the design phase, it’s a simple change to make.

It would be scope creep if your client wanted to make a more complicated change, like the complete logo design, the backgrounds for their social media profiles, their website graphics or anything else requiring more effort and resources after the project has started.

Scope creep and feature creep are not the same thing

While scope creep is also known as requirement creep, function creep and kitchen sink syndrome, it is not the same thing as feature creep.

Recall, scope creep is the uncontrolled addition of project requirements that make a project at risk of missing deadlines and going over budget.

Feature creep is when you add too many features to an offering, to the point that it becomes bloated with features, making it less valuable to users.


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Why scope creep is bad

The cons tend to outweigh the pros every time scope creep occurs in a project.

Scope creep kills profits

Nearly 40 percent of agencies exceed their project budgets due to scope creep.

Your initial cost projections and estimates for the project will not account for all the additional hours your team will spend going back to the drawing board, re-working and tweaking things, or adding new features.

Scope creep not only increases the costs of designing, manufacturing, and producing your product, but all the extra manpower hours will take a chunk out of your project’s profitability as well.

Scope creep leads to overtime

When you’re charging per project and not by the hour, the faster you accomplish your work, the higher your hourly rate.

If you budgeted a certain number of hours for a project and then a client or other scope creeper forces you to spend more time than you accounted for, you start to dip into low-profitability territory.

And if you’re billing per hour for work, new features and additions outside of the original scope will add hours to your billables, which may not be cool with your client.

Let’s not forget that working overtime all the time is draining for you and your team.

Scope creep delays work and contributes to missed deadlines

When you add more work to your project scope and have to shuffle around prior commitments, you’re bound to miss your deadline.

Your team didn’t sign up to work 24/7, but if your client is expecting you to meet the scheduled deadline along with all the extra scope creep, grab another energy drink, and get ready to pull some all-nighters.

Not only that, but you may have to choose between delivering the excellent quality you’re known for and getting whatever you can accomplish done within your client’s time frame.

Overpromising and under-delivering isn’t really the best kind of customer service though.

Scope creep leads to unsatisfied customers

Despite your team’s killer effort to add everything your client wants and then some, stakeholders or customers may never be satisfied with the outcome.

Working outside your original project scope may detract from what your client truly asked for.

Adding too many features they don’t have a need for, or handing in the project much later than you promised, aren’t ways to earn repeat business.

Need a real-world example of all these consequences of scope creep stacking up to form one giant failure?

Why some people think scope creep is good

That’s right, certain experts say if you don’t widen your project’s scope when necessary, it could represent “a significant missed opportunity.”

Proponents of scope creep believe clients and providers don’t always see eye-to-eye when discussing their visions at the beginning of a project.

And even if you do feel like everyone is on the same page, what your client envisions and what your team produces can still be two totally different things.

Ever meet the “I don’t know what I want until I see what I don’t want” client?

If you don’t want to keep redoing your work for these types of people, you’ll have to consider a different methodology, such as agile project management.

Agile projects are projects that are constantly evolving.

But how do you manage scope creep for a project that’s constantly evolving?

Scope creep in agile project management

agile project management

When you hear of something that’s agile, you know it’s quick and moves around easily, like a jaguar or pro football player.

Agile project management is a “value-driven approach [which] allows for change and drives delivery by focusing on the most important features.”

Once all the aspects of a specific project are ranked in order of importance by the client, your team breaks up the project up into small increments, also known as sprints.

At the end of each sprint, the client will deliver feedback, which may or may not affect the scope of the next sprint.

The goal of agile project management is to deliver value early and consistently — without assuming you know exactly what your client is looking for straight off the bat.

Agile project managers anticipate and plan for changes in the project; and therefore, don’t mess up their stride (or their project’s trajectory).

To them, scope creep doesn’t exist because the project scope is constantly developing — as long as it still fits within the project’s time and budgetary limits.

While it’s impossible to think you’re going to banish scope creep forever (seriously, good luck), it’s inevitable that projects will change when you least expect them to.

It’s up to you to learn how to keep the momentum going despite setbacks.

How you deal with scope creep may mean the difference between keeping your clients and losing them to your competitors, which is why you should understand the five biggest causes of scope creep. That way you can prevent it from happening.

The 5 primary causes of scope creep and how to prevent each

1. The project scope is poorly defined

Thirty-seven percent of project failures are the result of a lack of “clearly defined objectives and milestones to measure progress.”

Without having concrete goals and a well-defined project scope, it’s easy to get sidetracked with work that doesn’t pertain to your project’s main focus.

You’ll also be more likely to let seemingly minor tasks creep in without fully estimating their impact on your project.

Solution: Write a detailed scope at the project’s onset

Ask as many questions as you need to in order to clearly understand the client’s goals with the project. Here are a few questions to ask in the beginning.

  • What are the goals of the project?
  • What will make this a success?
  • What can we do to ensure success?
  • How will you measure success after completion of the project?

Recently, I worked with the best freelancer ever. He did everything right. After we briefly spoke on the phone, he emailed me a detailed scope of work (SOW).

Take a look at it below.

scope of work examplescope of work example

I signed his SOW, which resulted in a project with terrific results, that finished on-time and on-budget.

2. You allow direct, unmanaged contact between the client and team members

Some clients, whether intentionally or unknowingly, try to add more features and options under the original project scope.

These items would require more resources and effort and therefore require more money from your client. But now, they’re freebies you have to cram into your already packed schedule.

Clients may make several requests — to several members of your team — and they’ll all start working in different directions because they’ve been taught to do whatever the client asks.

When you follow up with your team about why the work they were supposed to have finished isn’t done, they’ll tell you they were busy handling customer requests that you never even knew occurred.

Solution: Teach staff how to respond to scope creep

Explain the dollars and cents of business to your team. Let them know they need to direct clients, who request additional features, to you -- the project manager.

Let them know they should always make the client happy but not by just letting them bully you into tasks clearly not outlined in the original scope.

How do you respond to these requests though, as the project manager?

One way is to simply say: I can send you an estimate for that. When would you prefer it by?

3. Your client underestimates the complexity of the project

There’s a saying that if your client expects the world, it’s only because you sold it to them.

Pitching clients more than what your team can deliver means they’ll have to scramble at the last minute when the inevitable truth (that you promised too much) comes true.

This generally happens when projects are taken on without an accurate assessment of the team’s current performance, ability, and schedule.

If it takes your team a month to create a mobile app from scratch, promising to deliver a high-quality app in two weeks won’t help anyone.

Your team will get overwhelmed and discouraged at the prospect of failing the task (which they’re certain of) and your customers will be upset when the deliverables aren’t up to snuff (if they’re delivered at all).

Solution: Manage expectations

It’s your job as the project manager to manage client’s expectations. If you don’t, something like DIA fiasco could very well happen to you.

The best way is to be honest and clear from even before the project begins.

4. You get feedback last minute

When you wait until the eleventh hour to ask for feedback, you may be disappointed by what you hear.

This happens when you’re literally almost done with a project, send an update, and discover that your client or a key stakeholder wants to change directions.

It may be as simple as swapping the color or font of the logo you designed or it could be much more complex like reaching for an entirely different goal.

Without scheduling a review session with your clients to check in and ask for feedback, you and your team could wind up spending a lot of time editing a project you thought was near completion.

Solution: Involve users early and often

Involve users from the project’s commencement, and include them in the requirements and design planning.

Make sure you agree on the requirements and design with all project stakeholders before you begin executing on each phase of the process.

5. Your team can be responsible for scope creep

Though vague project scopes, client requests, and stakeholder opinions are usually the biggest causes of scope creep, your team members (and sometimes even you!) can contribute to the problem.

You’ll find these three types of scope creep on your team specifically:

  1. Customer-Pleasing Scope Creep happens when you and your team start adding or enhancing features to make the project look better and convince your clients that you put in a lot of hours. This is also known as Gold Plating because, like actual gold plating, it isn’t worth much at all if it means your project lacks a high-quality foundation. Miss the mark when it comes to submitting what you promised, and it may not matter how shiny your project’s features are in the end.
  2. Hope Creep occurs when your crew falls behind and hopes to get back on track, but underestimate how much time they really have and overestimate their ability to get it all done. While you think everything’s hunky-dory, you realize on deadline day that the work is MIA even though you were assured everything was on schedule.
  3. Effort Creep happens when someone on your team spends a lot of time and effort on something, but makes zero headway. Think of falling down the Wikipedia research rabbit hole here.

Any of these will inflate your project and cause it to take longer (and cost more) than expected.

Solution: Effectively manage your team

Ensure your entire team understands the project scope and agrees to focus on delivering it and nothing else. You could even take this a step further, and reward them when they deliver on-time, on-specification and on-budget.

Make sure to explicitly state that no one can add undocumented features. Instead, put the features through a change control process.

Of course, don’t forget to write detailed project specifications as well, so there is no room for ambiguity.

How to avoid scope creep in project management

scope creep

Create a well-defined project scope, and get all stakeholders’ signatures

Just as a builder wouldn’t start without a blueprint, a painter without a sketch, or a writer without an outline, take on no project without completing a project scope statement first.

A quick online search will lead you to tons of project scope statement templates if you need an easy form to fill out to corral your thoughts.

A scope statement should include:

  • What’s being delivered and the requirements of meeting that job (i.e., designing a mobile app for a client with XYZ functions)
  • The goals and objectives of the project (to engage more customers)
  • How you’re going to accomplish the goal (cost and time estimates, monitoring milestones, etc.)
  • Due dates for deliverables (specific dates work better than estimates here)
  • Points of contact with the ability to request a change in the project

With all this written out, have your clients and major stakeholders sign off on the scope statement so everyone’s on the same page.

Should anything be requested outside of the parameters expressly written on your SOW, refer back to the document everyone signed and agreed to originally.

Simply explain what the new request will affect your team and the project already in motion.

Will this addition add more time or require more money? Will it detract from the project’s main objective?

If it doesn’t fit within your scope statement, you’ll be able to show your client why.


Want to learn how to write a scope statement? Check out our courses on project management


Maintain a scope change log

change log
You can find this change log for projects here.

 

Sometimes attached to project scope statements, a scope change log keeps track of all the features, requests, additions, etc., that happen after the project begins.

A scope change log should be accessible by everyone on your team.

It will inform all stakeholders of what was altered, when, and by whom. It also provides everyone with an updated project scope.

Your scope change log should include:

  • The exact change/feature requested (i.e., adding a new gallery section to a website project)
  • Who made the request (Was it from the client, a stakeholder, or someone on your team?)
  • What will happen as a result (Estimate/track the changes in real-time and determine if you’ll need to adjust the project’s due date or final cost)

Keeping this record provides a formal, cause-and-effect model for how the new work will impact the deadline and expenses of the current project.

It may also deter unnecessary changes because the requests delaying the project — and who made them — will be there for everyone to see in black and white.

Stay on top of project milestones and timelines

Without deadlines, projects could go on forever.

You’d always find things to tweak, new features to add, and so much more to give your clients the best experience ever.

But in the name of profitability, you have to stick to what’s in your project’s scope.

That means breaking down everything that needs to get done into smaller, less intimidating milestones your team will look forward to accomplishing along the way.

To hold everyone accountable and keep track of everyone’s progress, create a timeline for your team to reach these key checkpoints well before the due dates for your actual deliverables.

When you see one area slipping in quality or taking too long, address it before it avalanches into a bigger issue.

Get feedback from stakeholders regularly

To avoid scope creep resulting from eleventh-hour feedback, involve your clients early on when you’re discussing the ins and outs of your project.

You can incorporate these additions at the beginning instead of rushing to finish them right before your deadline. Plus, there will be less waste when you don’t have to redo the work later down the line.

PS: Never leave a VIP or important stakeholder out of the decision-making process. They are the ones with veto power after all.

Warn your clients about additional fees that may occur due to additional changes or additions

Let your clients know that you’ll be happy to change elements and re-work items down the line, but they’ll be charged for the extra time and expense you’ll need to shoulder.

It’s not that your clients are trying to dishonestly squeeze free work out of your team, it’s just that they may not grasp the impact their “small” requests add up to.

So always allow room for revision in your project scope statement as a good-faith gesture, but don’t let it contribute to scope creep.

Maybe you’re willing to give your clients a certain number of edits and tweaks before charging them a fee to do so.

Let them know your policies up front and they may think twice before suggesting a huge change two days before your project’s due.

At the very least they won’t feel sideswiped by an additional charge if you do need to make extensive edits at the last minute.

Assess the pros and cons of every deviation from the project scope

While your first (and right) instinct may be to shut down anything that falls outside the SOW, try to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of integrating each new request.

If the changes won’t drain too many resources in comparison to the benefit they will provide, it may be in your best interest to complete them, especially if they’re going to impress or help your client for very little time or effort on your end.

Knocking out small details like these help you win repeat business.

But if the alterations and new ideas are way too complicated/resource-draining, don’t be scared to tell your client that the out-of-scope request will only derail and delay the completion of your project.

If they’re comprehensive enough, these new ideas don’t necessarily have to go to waste.

You can create a second project out of scope creep

Sticking to your project’s scope is productive, but also consider transforming all of a client’s out-of-scope requests into a second project.

Let your client know that you and your team would be more than happy to take on these ideas -- in the form of a new project -- after you complete the one you’re currently working on.

Goodbye, scope creep

You’re capable of organizing even the most out-of-control projects, but hopefully, after today, you’ll never have to worry about scope creeping destroying your progress again.

Now that you can identify scope creep in action, you’ll be able to quickly assess how many of the biggest causes of scope creep you deal with on a daily basis.

You’ll also be better equipped to help your team, clients, and stakeholders stay on track too.

Since that ultimately makes your job easier, let’s consider stopping scope creep a win-win for all parties involved.

And who knows?

You may even start completing projects early when the scope creep monster is no longer hiding under your desk.

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Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

Crafting fluff-free content is Devan’s jam. When she’s not writing for GoSkills, you’ll find her outside reading, soaking up the sun, or hiking her next adventure.

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