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When you’re in charge of a project, you usually know very well what your team needs to do to satisfy project requirements. But what if your client comes up with a new feature, however small, that you should start working on top of the existing project scope?
As a project manager, you’re probably familiar with this scenario, as projects often change because of user feedback or dynamic market conditions. That’s natural, and it could lead to very positive outcomes (a better-quality end-product, for example). However, the thing is that these unexpected edits could result in scope creeping to the point where you have very little control over the project progress.
Let’s take a closer look at project scope creep and discuss how you can deal with it in your project management career.
What is scope creep in project management?
The easiest way to describe scope creep is to say that it is adding features and requirements that are beyond the agreed-upon product scope. Both parts of this definition are important because project scope’s change or expansion is not necessarily the same as scope creep. On the contrary, change is a completely normal thing in project management. The scope creeps when changes are not agreed on, and the increase in project requirements is uncontrolled.
A definition provided by the PMBOK® Guide (5th edition) states that scope creep is the uncontrolled expansion to product or project scope without adjustments to time, cost, and resources. This description emphasizes a crucial factor that should help you imagine the potential consequences of scope creep. I’m talking about how these new features in the project scope are not adjusted to the timeline, resources, or budgets. It essentially means that any (or all) of these variables could go very wrong and sink your project.
Now that we’ve defined scope creep let’s discuss its main causes.
What causes scope creep in project management?
Scope creep is likely to be caused by a combination of the following factors:
Poor project scope. This is usually the main factor that contributes to scope creep. When your project’s scope is vague or non-existent, how can you control it? Having a clear scope statement is not the ultimate solution to this challenge, though. You need to validate the scope and sign it off with all project stakeholders.
Yet another problem may occur when you don’t consult the requirements with the right people on your team. For example, some requirements may turn out not to be technically viable even when your scope is clear, and your client has greenlit it. This is why it’s essential that you:
- gather project requirements from all stakeholders,
- analyze the requirements (and their consequences),
- discuss the requirements with your team,
- create a clear scope statement and a work breakdown structure (WBS),
- get your scope signed off by all stakeholders.
Want to learn more about this process? Check out our guide to project scope management. It will help you with managing scope successfully.
Scope creep is also likely to happen when you don’t have established procedures on dealing with change requests. Or perhaps you have set some change control rules, but the stakeholders aren’t aware of them. In the next section of this blog post, we’ll talk a bit more about managing changes so that they don’t derail your project.
One of the less expected causes of scope creep is when your team members are directly influenced by the client to add a new feature or expand an existing one. Such external pressure can be difficult to notice for project managers, especially if team members don’t communicate it transparently.
Yet another possible danger is when stakeholders show varied involvement in the project. Imagine a situation when your client is not paying that much attention to the project scope during the requirement gathering stage. Perhaps they are busy with other things or simply aren’t really engaged in the project. Once they see the first results of your work, however, they suddenly become more involved and start to come up with new features or redefine project goals. You can imagine how this could easily lead to scope creep.
Finally, we have to mention external influences, which are often out of your control. It’s difficult to get ready for unexpected scenarios, but, as a project manager, you should have some contingency plans prepared. They will help you to manage changes even if they take you by surprise.
As you can see, there are many possible causes of scope creep—our list is definitely not exhaustive. What you need to keep in mind is that scope creep will also happen due to a combination of different factors. That’s why it’s useful to know how you can potentially avoid scope creep whatsoever.
How can you prevent scope creep?
For starters, let us just say that scope changes aren’t something you should avoid at all costs. If you work in an agile environment, then you’re probably expecting changes to happen. What you want to mitigate is the result of your scope’s uncontrolled growth. Let’s go through some strategies for preventing scope creep:
- Prepare a clear statement of work (SoW), outlining both the things that are in the scope (essentially, a scope statement) and out of scope (e.g., requirements that you and the client discussed but ultimately removed from the scope). Make sure all project stakeholders review and sign off the scope.
- Introduce a change control process. It’s a crucial project management element that helps you to consider each change happening during the project carefully: investigate the causes as well as the effects on the timeline, budget, or resources. Make sure that all stakeholders are aware of and accept your change control process.
- Establish communication guidelines for all stakeholders. Let them know which channels they should use, when it is a good moment to discuss new requirements, whom they should contact within the team, etc. It may help you to avoid external pressure on the team.
- Don’t over promise/over deliver. From the very beginning of the project, make sure that all changes are properly documented, and their impact on the scope is analyzed. Delivering “bonus things” just to keep the client happy may ultimately negatively affect the project (and your client’s level of happiness). Remember to talk about “gold plating” with your team: they shouldn’t add out-of-scope things to their tasks on their own. In the spirit of project transparency, you should first discuss any issues that may appear.
- Have some flexibility within the budget/timelines. Change in project management is unavoidable. You need to have a buffer to stay comfortable and not make decisions solely based on the fear of exceeding the budget.
- Know which requirements are the most important. Project task prioritizing will help you tremendously. When you know which in-scope tasks are potentially expendable, you can deal with scope creep better.
- Communicate the status of any project element you’re showing to the client. Unsolicited feedback from stakeholders may easily lead to scope creep. Be clear when feedback or new ideas are useful, and when you’re showing parts of the project for a different purpose.
- Track project analytics. Your project or resource management software likely has a set of reporting features—utilize them to your benefit! We especially recommend tracking estimates and actuals: when you compare planned hours vs. the actual work recorded by your team members, you’re likely to spot signs pointing to scope creep faster. Read more about project reporting here.
Some project managers may feel that “creating a clear scope of the project” is often easier said than done—and they would have a point. For many projects, especially innovative endeavors, you may not be 100% certain as to what the finished product will look like. This is the case for many software development projects, where changes are often introduced based on user feedback and tests. Project teams face yet another challenge when they decide to use cutting-edge tech or experimental solutions.
This doesn’t mean, however, that scope creep is bound to happen in these scenarios. You can still increase your chances of building a reasonable scope by starting with the so-called project discovery phase. It’s a period during which you can test hypotheses, challenge assumptions, or build prototypes. All in order to validate your ideas and check if proposed solutions are viable.
My project’s scope has increased uncontrollably. What should I do?
We’ve just discussed several best practices of avoiding scope creep, but what if you’re already experiencing it? Perhaps it started from seemingly minor change requests, or maybe the stakeholders have been expecting additional features since the project kickoff. Managing scope creep is possible, and here are a couple of options for you.
First of all, scope creep may feel disheartening, but this is not the time to become passive and defeated. Projects that experience scope creep may still turn out fine.
Make sure you take a closer look at all change requests and analyze their consequences carefully. Evaluate how changes will affect the budget and the timeline of your project. Even if your team has already implemented a given change, it is still valuable to investigate its potential impact on the rest of your project.
It’s also a great time to pay some attention to resource forecasting. Change requests may have affected this aspect of the project as well. Do you have enough available team members to deliver this project? Will you need to hire/outsource some people? Take employee availability and team workload into account. You don’t want to overutilize your team members and potentially even burn them out because of the scope creep.
Another strategy for dealing with scope creep is to de-scope some of the initial requirements. If your project backlog is prioritized, you should be able to identify elements that could be swapped with the newly added ones. As a result, you may buy some extra time and costs for delivering the project.
As change requests keep pouring in, your team may be a little disoriented about project expectations. This, in turn, may lead to gold plating and spending even more time on certain tasks. You should double-check that each of the teammates understands new project requirements.
Don’t forget to look at the big picture of your project. The scope creep affects it as well. Perhaps it now makes sense for you and project stakeholders to discuss creating a sub-project(s) or launching an MVP? One of the downsides of scope creep is that teams lose momentum, and projects take longer than expected. Delivering a part of your project’s scope as a separate release may help regain that momentum and make your team feel more accomplished. There are also business benefits to this approach: releasing an MVP (minimum viable product) early on may help your client test the product and get early success among customers.
Finally, even if you’re experiencing scope creep, you should still regularly monitor your project’s health. Project reports will help you to evaluate team performance and calculate the effects of the growing scope.
Read more project management resources
Scope creep is not a rare phenomenon. As a project manager, you’re almost certain to face it at some point in your career. Half of the respondents surveyed by the Project Management Institute in the 2018’s Pulse of the Profession survey have experienced scope creep in the past 12 months. In 2020, the newer edition of this report showed that companies that are more mature in their capabilities are less affected by scope creep than organizations with low maturity (30% to 47%).
These insights are not surprising, because scope creep, while potentially damning, is manageable, especially by well-versed project managers and executives. We hope that this blog post has helped you discover ways to manage scope creep for your team’s benefit.
Want to learn more about project management? Why don’t you check other resources for project managers we have published:
- Guide to resource management – from resource planning to allocation and scheduling, this guide will show you how you and your team may benefit from effective resource management.
- How to avoid project scheduling conflicts? – a scheduling conflict can derail your projects. Learn how to plan multiple projects without running into scheduling conflicts.
- Micromanagement in project management – this blog post will help you assess whether you’re a micromanaging PM. You’ll also learn whether micromanagement is always bad (spoiler: not necessarily).
- Guide to capacity planning – once you have established your project’s scope, you should think about your team’s capacity and align project needs with people’s availability.
- Effective meeting management – want to run projects more efficiently? Don’t forget about meetings: they could be costing you a lot of time and money. In this blog post, you’ll find several tips on how to run effective meetings.
- Job creep in project management – you already know about scope creep, but have you heard about job creep? It happens when someone is performing tasks that are outside of their role. Job creep is a real concern for project managers—check out why.
- Effective communication for remote teams – Whether you’re working remotely by choice or you need to do it due to the current circumstances: this blog post will help you establish communication guidelines for your project team.