What is scope creep? Learn how to manage it with our 5 tips

Here you are, plugging away at a big project for an important client. You check your project management app, and the dashboard looks good; you’re on track!

As you take a moment to acknowledge your own excellence, your email and Slack channels start pinging.

The client has asked the designer to create a logo, even though the original project scope was to build a website. A logo is not a deliverable your team members expected to work on. Understandably, the designer is concerned that this new request will delay the schedule and affect the quality of the deliverables.

Side tasks piling up are one of the many examples of scope creep, a phenomenon that can quickly lead projects to fail.

Image Source: Giphy

Luckily, you can implement methods to prevent and manage scope creep. Let’s talk about them!

Table of Contents

What is scope creep?

If the above scenario has happened to you, you’ve been a victim of scope creep – perhaps without even realizing it!

Scope creep, also known as requirement creep, happens when project stakeholders add new requirements beyond the original project scope.  To put it simply, what was once five deliverables is now ten. A product that had one key feature now has three. 

Most importantly, these new requirements haven’t undergone a proper change control process. And while this might not seem like a big deal,  it can have a devastatingly negative impact on the overall project. 

Other potential scope creep triggers include:

  • A vague and undefined statement of work (aka the project brief)
  • Undocumented contact between the client and team members
  • Poor communication between all of the project stakeholders — clients, project managers, team leaders, and project team members

It’s unsurprising, then, that scope creep is one of the leading reasons why projects fail.

In fact, according to a study by the Project Management Institute, 50% of all projects experience scope creep. Even more alarming, only 57% finish within budget, and only 51% finish on time.

Take a moment to process that as we get into the next section, where you’ll find out who in your organization should care about scope creep. Spoiler alert — it’s everyone!

Who is affected by scope creep?

The answer to this question is simple:  every single stakeholder is affected by project scope creep.

Clients get frustrated when projects are delayed due to scope creep because they feel time frames need to be honored. Team members also suffer due to all the extra work now they have to do.

Scope creep that’s out of control is bad for everyone involved.

Project managers

First things first, scope creep affects project managers the most because it’s their responsibility to manage the project objectives and the entire project.

That’s why project managers must avoid letting scope creep in (see what we did there?). When you manage scope creep properly, you increase the chances that the project will be finished within the project’s schedule and budget.

Since project managers typically own the entire project plan and are the ones responsible for delivering it on time, the brunt of the scope management falls to them.

But, using things such as scope statements (documents that offer a detailed overview of project deliverables, milestones, and objectives) to manage the scope of a project helps project managers too.

That is because they can focus on other parts of their jobs rather than playing whack-a-mole with constant requests for new features and new functionality.

Creative teams and agencies

Creative work, especially commercial creative work, is by nature a repetitive process. You do a draft, send it to a client, the client sends feedback, and so on.

As a project goes through its lifecycle, it’s easy for side tasks and last-minute change requests to pile up and go beyond the agreed-upon project goals.

This extra work can impact the quality of the final product you’re delivering because the team members now have less time to work on each deliverable. By getting ahead of scope creep, you’re ultimately providing a better service to your client.

A way to stave off scope creep is to use collaboration tools for designers when reviewing project deliverables. 

Let’s say you’ve completed a web design project and submitted it for review using MarkUp.io, a visual feedback platform. Your client pins their comments and iterations requests to the web elements that need to be changed and sends the Website MarkUp back for you to address their plea.

While browsing your client’s feedback, you notice something suspicious: a wild “let’s add a contact form here” comment. Was this even in the initial project scope? You ask yourself while reviewing the scope document. 

Spoiler alert: Contact forms were not something you and your client discussed or agreed upon. And from the looks of it, the client is trying to get some extra features squeezed into the project without additional pay.

In short, they want you to add a feature to their website for free.

Lucky for you, MarkUp.io offered you a clear overview of your client’s edit requests, and you quickly identified the creep about to be added to your scope. 😌

Designers and other creatives 

Scope creep doesn’t just affect agencies and big companies. Solopreneurs and freelancers are at risk too.

In fact, because you’re working alone and have fewer clients than an agency, it’s easier to fall prey to an endless stream of change requests that go well beyond the project’s original scope.

But, scope creep can be just as overwhelming in an agency environment. That’s because designers and creatives are the ones who are saddled with extra work when their project managers simply don’t know how to say “no” to a client and have no scope management plan in place.

Pretty much everyone who’s part of a team

By now, we’ve mentioned project managers, creative teams, agencies, and designers.

Is there anyone who doesn’t have to worry about scope creep?

Sadly, the answer is no. 😒

Regardless of your team size or industry, all the extra work that scope creep causes messes with everyone’s workflow. The results can be grisly — missed milestones, stalled project progress, and in the end, total failure to deliver.

And the personal toll on team members can’t be ignored either. Burnout, lack of engagement, and low job satisfaction are all well-known productivity killers.

So, there are all these requests for new features, extra work, side tasks, and piling on deliverables… How does that shake out in real life? You can find out in the next section.

3 examples of scope creep 

Scope creep – true to its name  – creeps up on the best of us.

The only antidote is to understand why and how it happens. Which is exactly what this section is all about.

Lucky you. 😎

If your projects are constantly getting bigger, the following common causes of scope creep can help you identify when things are going off the rails.

Example #1: Long projects are very vulnerable to scope creep

Some projects are long by necessity. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were most of the products and services we use daily.

For instance, building a website means writing a web design proposal, mocking everything up, the wireframes, and multiple rounds of feedback from key stakeholders… Well, you get it. And this is just for the design, not the website’s backend.

Describing all the steps involved in that would fill up this entire blog.

So, the project goes on and on, the clients add more requests, have more ideas, and even start giving new feedback on deliverables you completed months ago.

Uh-oh, now you’re in real trouble. 😈

There is a way out of this, however. When you’re working on a big project, divide the project timeline into milestones with clear objectives.

Firstly, it will give your team members a sense of accomplishment (and relief!) as they complete each milestone.

Secondly, you need to be firm that once a milestone has been delivered, that’s it. There’s no going back.

Example #2: Lack of management involvement leads to project failure

Successful projects need leaders.

But that’s not always how it shakes out.

Everyone who’s ever worked on a project with other people has experienced being left to their own devices in critical moments that can decide the length of a project.

For example, clients can send requests for new features *straight* to the team without discussing them with the management first. 

Creatives reach out to their team leader, but they don’t write back in time. Employees then take it upon themselves to avoid conflict and please the client to do the additional, unapproved task.

It’s a given that when team members are unsure what they need to do and can’t get clarification from leadership in time, they’re likely to interpret the requests for additional features as they see fit.

So, not only is more work done without proper clearance, but it may not even be right for the project, thus wasting everyone’s time.

Before you know it, the project sponsors are unhappy and demanding explanations. Not a good time for anyone involved.

Example #3: Third-party dependencies may affect deadlines

In today’s interconnected and globalized world, few projects, if any, are completed fully in-house.

It could be a website that relies on components and plug-ins from external vendors or the manufacture of a new product that requires materials and parts from suppliers worldwide.

Aside from the impact on deadlines, what happens when a supplier delivers a part to the wrong specification or your software provider gives you something incompatible with the rest of your tech stack?

Scope creep happens; because now your project includes fixing those errors.

In cases like this, project success depends on clearly explaining to all key stakeholders the impact that third parties will have.

But is a scope change always bad? Not necessarily, and you’ll learn why in the next section.

Scope creep vs. scope change: what’s the difference?

The main difference between scope change and scope creep is that scope change is an official decision made by the client and the project manager to expand the project by adding a new feature or requirement.

Scope creep, on the other hand, happens with new requests that grow the project beyond the initially agreed-upon scope. Scope creep is unplanned and happens without proper costing and approval.

From the way we’ve been talking about changing project requirements so far, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s always a bad thing. But it isn’t.

For instance, a client might realize they’d like their new website also to have a community support forum. If they approach the project manager to analyze this requirement and see how it will impact the budget and project timeline — that’s scope change.

If they just start requesting community forum features without any consultation with the project manager, that’s scope creep.

But what if you’d like to impress the client by adding a new feature that wasn’t initially discussed in the briefing meeting? When this happens, you’re dealing with gold plating, which can derail a project’s timeline just as much as scope creep can.

However, scope creep is distinct from gold plating. Gold plating happens when the project team adds new features to impress the client or internal stakeholders while scope creep is usually the result of clients pushing additional requests to get work done for free. 😅

If you feel a bit frightened by scope creep at this point, you’re not alone. But don’t get discouraged; there are ways to fight it off.

5 tips for managing scope creep efficiently

Project failure is a serious threat that all project managers must contend with. There are loads of reasons a project can go belly-up. One of the most common causes of project failure is, of course, scope creep.

Thankfully, there are ways to manage scope creep and prevent projects from going off the rails. Here are five tips to help you out.

Table showing five tips for managing scope creep.

Tip #1: Ensure the project scope is clearly defined

A vague and poorly defined project scope is the leading cause of scope creep. That’s why the most important thing you can do is document the project requirements.

When you clearly define the requirements, you have a clear project scope.

Now that might sound obvious, but in reality, you have to talk to the client and all project stakeholders about every tiny detail before starting the project.

An effective way to do that is to draft a project proposal and send it to your clients for review and approval. Of course, doing so over email will only create more problems.

Getting feedback on project proposals can be frustrating when inboxes fill up with vague messages. It’s hard to figure out who wants what.

Luckily, there are team productivity tools like MarkUp.io that can make this process easier.

With MarkUp.io, you simply drag and drop your files onto the platform and instantly create a sharable carbon copy of your docs (we call these MarkUps). Then, you can submit your work for proofing via share link, URL, or email invites.

As soon as your clients open the MarkUp, they can click and pin contextual feedback on the elements needing edits. You can then browse, implement, resolve, and even reply to their comments to ask for additional clarifications.

It’s a lot easier than decoding emails with walls of text accompanied by attached screenshots annotated in Microsoft Paint. 😉

Annotation tools save you time and spare you from getting lost in a frustrating email shuffle. Plus, platforms like MarkUp.io minimize the misunderstandings that can lead to silent project scope sabotage. 

With MarkUp.io, all project stakeholders can leave feedback right on the project proposal. They will all be able to see each other’s takes on the content and settle any contradicting opinions on the spot.

Ultimately, you’ll end up getting a clear project scope that’s universally approved by everyone involved. And all you’ll have to do for this to happen is create a MarkUp, share it, and watch the magic happen.

Tip #2: Establish a communication channel between the team and the client

Once you have agreed on the project scope with your client and made a WBS, share it with all the key stakeholders, including the team members working on the project.

Clear communication between stakeholders is key to preventing misunderstandings that can introduce scope creep and cause the project to derail.

How your client communicates with your team members is very important. You should keep the client from contacting the team members directly. That can lead to “small favors” turning into extra work and before you know it — scope creep.

You need to filter this communication to ensure team members are working on billable tasks and not wasting time on unpaid labor.

So, all scope change requests must be discussed with the project manager first.

You should also instruct your team members that when clients contact them with requests, they should point them to the agreed-upon change control process.

Tip #3: Analyze your team’s capacity and don’t over-promise

Over-promising and under-delivering are a dreaded duo that leads to project failure and, even worse — a bad reputation.

Before you approve a project, take stock of your team’s capacity.

What amount of workload is appropriate and realistic depends on the size of your team and the complexity of the project and its tasks.

It may be tempting to simply nod along with the client’s requests and their proposed timelines, but your client doesn’t have the kind of insight into your team that you do. What seems reasonable to them may not be reasonable at all.

This phase of the project is called resource planning, and it’s a methodology that helps you avoid ballooning budgets, miscommunication, and frustration across tasks and teams.

Do this when you’re analyzing the capacity of your team:

  • Develop a strategic breakdown structure (define what you are trying to accomplish and how you will measure success)
  • Gather project requirements
  • Chart out how long tasks take
  • Create a prioritization methodology

Tip #4: Clearly define roles and responsibilities when assigning tasks

When it’s time to start assigning tasks, you must clearly define who’s in charge of what.

Too many cooks will spoil the broth, as they say.

First off, there should be just one pair of hands at the steering wheel. The project manager should be the clear project owner, and everyone’s roles and responsibilities must be immediately apparent.

If people don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they are likely to do too much or too little work. And any changes to the features and the project scope will go undocumented.

Using productivity tools and project management software lets you keep track of task assignments, workloads, and due dates.

With these in your tech stack, stakeholders will be aligned, and everyone will know what’s happening.

Tip #5: Implement a scope management processes

The scope management plan is a component of the project plan that describes how the scope of the project will be established and controlled.

It should include the work breakdown structure, scope statement, and the process by which project stakeholders approve the baseline scope.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that no changes will be made to the project once it’s underway, it’s important to have a system in place to manage these changes.

That’s what the change management plan is all about. You need to have a process to analyze any requests for changing the project scope.

It’s pretty straightforward — someone suggests a change via a change request which is then reviewed. The request is approved or denied based on the factors and metrics you set out in the scope management plan. If it’s approved, it goes into the project plan.

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Now that you’ve absorbed all this info, let’s take a moment to reflect and prepare to sum it all up.

Now over to you

It’s settled, then: the best way to fight against scope creep is to have a scope management process and to practice clear and transparent communication between all the key stakeholders.

And we all know that feedback is a big part of good communication on a project. Modern collaboration tools like MarkUp.io can help you streamline the feedback loop and free up more time for productive work.If you’d like to see it in action, sign up for the free 14-day MarkUp.io trial!