Scope Creep: Definition, Causes and How to Prevent It

By MBO Partners | January 26, 2023


Key Points

Scope creep happens when a customer adds new requirements, activities, or deliverables to a project that go outside the original scope of work.

A project may be at risk for scope creep when deliverables are not clearly specified, stakeholders are not involved or supportive, or tasks prove to be more difficult than anticipated.

Find 9 strategies to prevent scope creep and fulfill the agreed-upon deliverables.

Scope creep can occur during a project when a client adds tasks outside of the scope of your agreement. It is important to understand how scope creep occurs and how to avoid it to make sure that both parties agree which tasks are expected to be completed and which are considered outside of scope.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep occurs when a client adds new provisions, tasks, or deliverables to a project that are outside of an existing scope of work. These unforeseen changes can lead to missed deadlines, financial losses, increased timelines and budgets, and client dissatisfaction.

When deliverables are not clearly defined, stakeholders are not involved or supportive, or tasks turn out to be more complex than initially thought, a project can be at risk for scope creep. Part of a successful client-consultant relationship is proper management of the scope of a project.

When running an efficient business, it is important to manage and avoid scope creep. While it’s not uncommon for a client to request additions or changes to a project, and saying ‘yes’ can be an automatic reaction, that extra work can quickly add up and lead your project into the scope creep.

Scope management is a key element of the client-consultant relationship. Scope creep can lead to missed deadlines, overrun budgets, and client dissatisfaction.

Top 4 causes of scope creep

The success of a project requires not only your expertise, but an alignment with your client’s business objectives and experienced internal supporters who have the communication skills needed to ensure success. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are the top four warning signs:

1. Lack of preparation and poor initial analysis

A project may be vision-oriented, but if it lacks clearly-defined and measurable tasks, you’re at risk. Without a detailed project plan, it is hard to hold both yourself and your client responsible for duties and deliverables.

2. Minimal stakeholder involvement

When a project does not have strong executive support or when stakeholders aren’t involved, it becomes difficult to meet client expectations. Lack of communication between key client players can lead to more, unnecessary work on your end.

3. Insufficient experience and inconsistent processes

When a client project manager lacks experience dealing with the size or complexity of a project, you can easily over budget, miss deadlines, or complete work you didn’t plan for.

4. Underestimating project complexity

If a project takes a long time or is more complex than initially defined, scope creep can quickly set in. When red-flag issues are not quickly discussed and resolved, a project can quickly get out of hand and client-contractor relationships can become strained.

9 Ways to avoid project scope creep

Here are nine ways to avoid scope creep so that your project stays focused on providing agreed upon deliverables:

1. Lay a strong foundation

It will be much easier to identify and manage scope creep if you start with a well-defined project scope. Before you document project scope, be rigorous in gathering requirements and interviewing stakeholders to ensure you have a full picture of what the project will entail.

2. Set clear and measurable objectives

Your project plan should clearly articulate the work that will be done with milestones and metrics.

3. Always have a written contract

A clearly defined written contract is an important part of setting expectations at the beginning of a project. It will be much easier to identify and manage scope creep by documenting the details of your project before you start work.

Discuss deliverables, timelines, milestones, duties, and responsibilities both for you and your client. Collaborate to outline a clear plan of action that will help you both meet the project goal. As you gather a list of requirements, be sure to speak with all stakeholders involved to ensure you don’t overlook any client expectations.

4. Create a back up plan

Projects rarely move from start to finish without a few hiccups. As part of your initial preparation, put a backup plan in place. Define a process for addressing scope creep: discuss who will be responsible for reviewing and approving requested changes or additions, how long timelines can be extended, and the cost associated with extra work.

Having these conversations before you begin your project will help you avoid potentially awkward interactions down the road, ensure the client is mindful of your time, and keep your compensation in check.

5. Host a kick off meeting

Once you have a detailed scope of work and backup plan in place, start your project with a kick-off meeting. A kick-off meeting allows you to get all of the project stakeholders together for one last review before the project begins. During the meeting, review roles and accountability, project milestones, and define a process for checking in and reporting on project status.

6. Communicate clearly and often

At the end of the day, you are responsible for all project work. If a change in scope comes up, take the lead and meet with your client to discuss how the change fits into the overall project, and how it will impact timelines. Provide your professional input, work together to make a decision, and carry out a course of action.

7. Know when to say no

Sometimes, a change request may come up that clearly does not add value to the project or may even have a negative impact on your work in the long term. In these situations, it’s okay to say no. Clearly present your case to your client and discuss the best way forward.

If a client is set on making specific changes, consider compiling their requests into a separate project you can begin once your current project is complete. This will enable you to stick to your current agreement rather than continually making changes along the way.

8. Examine your bill rate

Scope creep can have a dramatic impact on your earnings—a little here and there can significantly reduce your bill rate. One way to manage it is to ensure your bill rate covers not only cost, but the value you deliver to your clients.

9. Provide options for additional work

When a client approaches you with additional requests, start by reminding them what your original scope of work entailed, and then present them with two options. You can either add on the requested work for an additional expense, or you can proceed with the agreed-upon scope of work. This gives the client a simple choice, and you won’t lose out on your own time and compensation.

Scope creep can create a stressful work environment, and take the fun out of doing what you love. Take the time to develop a well-defined project, put a backup plan in place, and continually communicate with your client to proactively manage the first signs of scope creep.

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