Guide to Project Management
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Chapter 6

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It?

It happens all the time: a client’s business changes or a new stakeholder gets pulled into a project, and you’re forced to have discussions about things that were 90% complete or possibly already approved. This type of thing can kill morale, draw out timing, and completely drain a project budget. The first reaction of the PM is to build a wall to ward off impending scope creep. But that’s impossible because scope creep isn’t a person or an animal you can tame—it’s an idea that can spin your project out of control.

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So how do you handle scope creep on your projects? It’s your job as the project manager to act as both the project gatekeeper and the cheerleader, to monitor, manage, and report on its progress, and to nobly guard your project estimate, scope, and timeline with courage and diplomacy.

What is scope creep in project management?

Scope creep is when changes or updates are added to a project beyond what was originally agreed upon. An example of scope creep is when your project originally had 3 deliverables but now it’s grown to 5 because a stakeholder asked for a change.

Scope creep negatively impacts projects in several ways—usually because the work increases, but not the budget or time frame. Scope creep is notorious for stressing out team members, pushing projects over budget, and taking time and focus away from the original deliverables.

What causes scope creep?

Here are some of the most common causes of scope creep:

  • Lack of clarity around project deliverables
  • Poorly defined project requirements
  • Last-minute “ideas” or changes to deliverables
  • Stakeholders who are disengaged or misunderstand levels of effort
  • Lack of communication regarding project details

How to avoid scope creep

Any change, additional request, or new requirement can bring a bit of project stress for any PM. But when you’re caught up in that moment, it’s always good to remember that you’ve got a lot to fall back on. If you've done your due diligence and have truly read and understood your scope, built a plan based on that scope, and have completely vetted it with your team and your clients you've made it easy to avoid scope creep.

TeamGantt Tip: Keep a file shortcut or a local folder of documents on your desktop so that you can refer to them quickly. This should include copies of your most recent plans, scope of work, and estimates. Having them handy will save you time as opposed to wading through folders.

The initial steps of a well-constructed PM process will truly carve a path to success for you—and your project. Don’t ever be shy to stop a conversation and say, “Let me refer back to the scope/plan and get back to you.” You should never expect to (or be expected to) have every detail committed to memory—especially if you’re responsible for more than one project. So take your time, don’t jump to provide an immediate answer, and always remember that a solid response is going to have the best impact.

Here are the 5 best ways to avoid scope creep.

1. Understand the project requirements and align with the client

Begin with the end in mind. Make sure you truly understand the client’s goals and requirements. Being aligned from the start will go a long way toward preventing scope creep down the road.

2. Create a detailed project plan and stick to it

It’s a whole lot easier to avoid scope creep when you have a clear plan in place from the get-go. So take time to outline every step you need to take to get from the beginning to the end of your project on time and budget. A gantt chart provides a great visual tool for building your plan and monitoring scope as work progresses.

Just don’t let all the work you put into your plan go down the drain by succumbing to every new issue and request. That first version of your plan is your baseline, and you don’t just make these things up! If you’re doing it right, you’re basing it on your estimate and scope. Sure, plans can change, but referring to that first plan as your baseline will often help you in arguing the case for more time or more budget when new scope starts to creep in. Stick to the plan, and use it as your project’s roadmap.

3. Don’t be afraid to say no

Saying no to a client may seem scary—but sometimes it's the best way to help your client achieve their goals. And it can be a powerful tool for preventing scope creep too. If you receive a change request that will throw the project off track, it’s okay to say no. Just position it as a conversation, not a declaration. Clearly explain how the change will negatively impact the project, and discuss options for the best way to proceed.

4. Talk about how changes impact the project schedule

A date is a date. Missing deadlines will most often cause an impact, whether it be on your resourcing plan, the next delivery, or the final deadline. Don’t fear the conversation about timeline issues and impacts. Talking things out while a change is happening will help everyone understand what is affected. Review your baseline plan with your team and stakeholders, and discuss how unexpected changes will impact future deadlines and the overall project schedule. Then work together to determine how to move forward.

5. Include a process for changing the scope

This is equal parts setting expectations and creating process. If you’re in a larger organization, you might be required to complete a series of approvals (read: documentation) to ensure that everyone on your team agrees to a change in plans or timeline. On smaller projects with smaller teams, it’s often easy to merely take everyone’s word for it and keep moving on with the changes. In that instance, you might consider creating a “paper trail” associated with a particular conversation or change in scope.

Use your judgment here, but it’s never a bad thing to write a change request for a non-scope-related change. It can be a good way to cover your bases and ensure that no one will go back on what had been verbally agreed to via email. Any good scope change request will include:

  • Description of the change
  • Approach to change
  • Schedule/timeline impact
  • Risk
  • Cost (if applicable)
  • Signatures (ALWAYS require these)

How to manage scope creep

Sometimes, no matter how much you plan or prepare, scope creep happens. When it does, it’s important to document everything and communicate with your team and stakeholders.

Let’s take a look at how to manage scope change when it creeps in on your projects.

1. Prioritize communication

As the project manager, you’re the primary communication point for all project work. If the project scope starts to shift, be proactive and raise a flag to your clients and stakeholders. Discuss how the change affects the project and budget.

2. Versioning and reporting

Not every project change will result in a scope change. Sometimes unexpected things happen: someone gets sick, a stakeholder has gone missing and can’t provide feedback, a baby is born! You get the idea. If plans change (and they likely will), be sure to keep track of those changes. Don’t ever try to slip in a timeline update without notifying everyone involved. Always communicate it in several ways.

Here are some helpful strategies for communicating changes:

Provide an updated project plan

Update all impacted tasks, and keep notes on extensions in your newest version. For instance, if a client milestone is missed and a deadline is extended, make a note in the planned task. Most planning software includes a handy “notes” field, so it’s easy to note, “Baseline date was [month/day/year/], Actual was adjusted on [month/day/year/] due to [reason].” After you’ve updated everything and double-checked your dates, make a new version and save the old one in a safe spot.

TeamGantt Tip: Drag and drop to update your plan and get an answer on new timing within minutes. You should also baseline your plan to keep track of the many versions you might encounter. To create a new baseline set, open the project (or projects), and click Menu > Baselines > Create New Baseline Set.

TeamGantt Tip: Dependencies in a gantt chart can be really helpful when you have a project requiring tasks to be done in a certain order, so be sure to check those out in TeamGantt as well. This way, when you reschedule a task, other tasks that are dependent on it will automatically be rescheduled as well. Create a free interactive gantt chart using TeamGantt today!

Provide an update in a project status report

You should always be reporting on current timeline status in your regular status reports, so it’s a perfect spot to report on the updates you’ve made to your plan. You might choose to replicate the note made in your plan or even attach the plan for review and discussion.

Note or add the change in your project requirements document

This document is created for your team to review/revise and check against throughout the project. Don’t forget to refer back to it and keep it up to date since there are times when the document can become buried in the project.

What To Do When a Project is Over Budget

People hate talking about money. It’s your job to talk about things that people hate. That’s just how it is for project managers. So, the best way to approach topics like budget overages and scope creep is to handle them head on and document, document, document! But it often doesn’t just start with a document! It starts with the work and the conversation surrounding that work.

If you’ve read Chapters 1 and 2, you know that project managers need to be in constant communication with their teams. Starting a project must begin with clear communication of the project goals and the effort required to meet them. This comes with understanding the fact that a project manager can’t be the only one writing a project plan. Sure, you could try—but if you’re interested in team buy-in, you won’t. The reason you won’t is because you don’t want to put yourself or your team in an awkward position by not coming to a consensus on the approach before presenting it to your client. Doing that would be like stabbing every single one of your coworkers in the back. Not so good for the old reputation.

A change in scope should never be a surprise to you or your clients. They wouldn’t call it “scope creep” if it didn’t slowly slither up on you. Sure, some requests are obviously out of the boundaries of your scope, and you can address them immediately. But there’s often that one feature or requirement that starts as a manageable piece of scope and slowly evolves into something else. This, my friends, is scope creep. And it’s your job to keep an eye on these things and make sure that they are not killing your budget.

Creep the creep

When you do realize that they’re going to kill your budget, use your documentation and status reports to call out the issue. The first step would be to reassess the budget and note where the work is trending. Take a look at the project hours and estimated effort, then check in with your team to see if they would estimate an overage. If they confirm, you need to make your clients aware right away. If they think it’s fine and you’re just being an alarmist, you might want to let your clients know about the potential risk anyway. It never hurts to show that you’re thinking ahead and being budget-conscious. The best way to do this is to make it formal. Create a “Risk/Issues” section in your status report so you can write out potential issues and then discuss them with your clients.

Discussing the issue might feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. Calling things out early will give you the time to think through a mitigation plan and discuss it with your clients. Plus, by not waiting until the very last minute to call out the issue, you’re positioning it in a way that will help everyone involved to devise a reasonable approach to the change; you always have your scope and baselined timeline to back you up. A well-researched and planned discussion surrounding the scope creep risk will help put you, your client, and the potential issue at ease. Anything can be sorted out with planning and discussion.

What if the client says no?

Sometimes you’ll get to a point where the team can’t continue work without a budgetary change request, but the clients don’t want to agree to it. Talk about uncomfortable! It’s never easy to proceed under these conditions, but as the PM, you have to come up with options. Here are a few scenarios to think through:

  • Can you trade scope? Meaning, if your team does let scope creep commit a hostile takeover, can you cut something else from the project to make up for lost time and/or budget?
  • How will the change impact the quality of the product? If it’s going to make it worse, how does that impact your bottom line?
  • Is your company willing to “eat” some of the cost in order to develop a better product and keep the clients happy? If yes, what is that cost?

No matter what the answer is, you’ll need the buy-in of your team and management to make the change that is best for your project, your clients, and your company. It’s never an easy decision to make.

What about quality?

At the end of the day, everyone wants to deliver a quality product that is successful and evokes a sense of pride. So, while it’s important to complete and deliver on time and under budget, you should never lose sight of delivering a quality product; the expectations of what you’re to deliver should never be overshadowed by the scope or timeline. You’ll always use your timeline and budget as the guiding light, but it’s important to set forth what will make the project a success in the eyes of your clients and your team. Just a few questions, asked at the beginning of a project can help establish:

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

Asking these questions will help your team set some targets within the context of your project budget and timeline. Having goals helps you set the stage for how you can meet them within the constraints of the project. Goals can also help you gauge the validity of new requests as they come in. If you’re experiencing scope creep and the work doesn’t actually meet a goal, it’s much easier to cut it out.

Watching scope is easy!

A good project manager can sense scope creep the minute it’s hinted at. A better project manager takes the time to diagnose the scope creep, study it, and develop an approach to accept or deny it. The best project managers take the time to get through all of those steps and approach the situation with a level head. Any project problem—scope-related or not—can be resolved with a conversation that references previous work you’ve done on your project. In fact, all of the time you put into creating an estimate, scope, and timeline will make approaching any problem easier.

Avoid scope creep in your projects

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