Project scope creep can impact your team's ability to deliver work on time and within budget. That's why smart project management is essential to prevent scope creep and keep projects on track.
Finishing a project can be a real juggling act for even the most experienced teams. A successful project involves executing tasks, managing budgets, and meeting deadlines.
As if that weren't difficult enough, there's also another (often overlooked) aspect of project management that impacts over 50% of all projects according to PMI: scope creep. That's where a goal gets changed, or extra tasks are added to a project's workload, which, in turn, is responsible for a significant portion of blown project budgets.
It's also a problem that is showing no signs of slowing down. In the past decade alone, PMI found that scope creep's impact has risen from 43% to a whopping 52% of all projects! That's the stuff that project manager nightmares are made of.
Despite the seeming doom and gloom, scope creep isn't always so bad. Agencies can actually use it to refine processes, create better schedules, and, most importantly, deliver work to clients faster.
What is scope creep in project management, and what causes it?
Project scope creep happens when a project is hit with continuous or uncontrolled changes to its development and timeline that weren't accounted for in the original project planning process.
If a project experiences scope creep, it can cause missed deadlines, blown budgets, and stress and confusion within a team as they work to right the ship. There are several causes of scope creep:
- Poorly defined project scope
- Lack of project management techniques
- Client requests extra work/features (for free)
- A team feeling like they need to overdeliver
- Bad communication between agencies and clients
- Poor collaboration between team members handling a project's requirements
Let's look at an example. A client requests a small change on a project your agency is working on (nothing you would ever bill them for because it's a 10-minute job). Then they ask for a few other small additions, and then a few more tweaks, so on and so forth. Sense a pattern?
Without realizing it, your agency might be spending hours on small changes that weren't in the project's original scope—yet that you've now spent time (and money) on because you don't want to upset the client.
That is scope creep in a nutshell.
How to manage and prevent project scope creep
Even though scope creep is a growing problem for project managers, there are ways to manage it and, yes, even prevent it from happening in the first place.
Get real about expectations vs. reality
Clients might have expectations of how long a project should take. However, it's your job to bring them back down to reality.
The first step in any project should involve taking a realistic look at the project, your team's capabilities, and the overall budget before determining if the expected timeline is feasible. Once you break down all of a project's elements, you should then present them to your client as a scope of work (SOW).
If the SOW doesn't match with your client's expectations, be straight with them before the project kicks off.
Postlight's Managing Partner, Gina Trapani says you should always expect things to crop up once a project kicks off. Instead of trying to anticipate what those issues will be, she handles them using her judgement and having a chat with the client.
"You manage expectations; you lay out those expectations, and if something changes, then you have to renegotiate that relationship." - Gina Trapani
Don't let your team "gold plate" projects
Team leaders often feel pressured to add extra features to a project because a creative on the team comes up with a good suggestion.
At first, it seems like a no-brainer to add something that will please the client. This type of scope creep is called "gold plating." Shopify's Growth Marketing Lead, Simon Heaton, says gold plating happens when you continue working and fine-tuning a project, even when the added value isn't enough to justify the extra cost.
"These additional features are generally not requested by the client but are completed in an attempt to go above and beyond. In general, gold plating ends up doing more harm than good, as it drives up internal costs with no clear benefit." - Simon Heaton
Use past projects as a baseline to estimate the scope of work
Sometimes projects are destined for scope creep before they even begin.
Team leaders may underestimate how long tasks will take or the budget needed to complete the project. If the cost of a project estimate is off, things can start to veer off course fast.
Looking at past projects is the best way to avoid this type of scope creep and create an accurate work projection. By using data from projects you've already completed, you can accurately estimate how long tasks might take and the team size you'll need to get the job done.
Pro-tip: Accurately estimating a project's costs is a critical part of a successful project. There are three methods you can use to do it: ballpark, parameter, and three-point estimations. Our quick guide to project cost estimation gives you a detailed breakdown of how to use each method 📕
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Three tips for dealing with project scope creep
1. Kick projects off with a smarter scope
Every project must have a scope of work (SOW). An SOW helps everybody stay on the same page, and it can also stop a project from taking on additions and changes that weren't agreed to initially. On the back of this, you should create a project scope that your whole team works on to understand how each task relates to completing the project and whether last-minute changes could throw off deadlines.
What is a scope of work?
A scope of work (SOW) outlines a project's tasks and duration, along with the resources required to get the job done. It should also contain any deadlines, milestones, and deliverables so your client—and your team—know what to expect once the project kicks off.
SOWs are also important for project budgets. Creating one before kickoff makes it easier to estimate the project's actual cost and gives team leaders a better chance of keeping spending on track once the project starts.
You can avoid project scope creep by using simple techniques like a work breakdown structure (WBS). A WBS allows teams to visualize project tasks alongside a budget estimate while measuring them against the project's scope. To create a WBS that will help with scope creep, break your project down into pieces:
- Carve out an outline that answers any internal questions: What does the team need to do to accomplish X?
- Ask questions until each part of the project is broken down into individual, manageable tasks: Who is in charge of writing the copy for the pricing page of the client's new website?
- Estimate the length of each task: How long will X take? If it takes 4 hours, how much will that cost?
- Build a timeline: Create a timescale that highlights milestones and critical deadlines, so your client has a delivery date for the project.
Creating this type of "smart" scope will give your team a full picture view of a project and allow you to offer clients a detailed estimate of delivery dates and budget costs. Mayven's David Appleyard says setting clear project expectations up front can't be overemphasized. "You want to be working in partnership with your client as you build their product, and having a clear set of project boundaries can make the whole process enjoyable from start to finish," he says.
"Be as clear and as specific with the boundaries as you can when outlining the project features, requirements, and the amount of work you're going to put in. Set goals and objectives for each stage of the project development as well."
2. Implement a process to tackle scope creep
As hard as you might try to avoid scope creep, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that it's likely going to happen at some point. The smart thing to do is to make sure you have a plan to tackle out of scope (OOS) requests when they do occur.
Postlight's Product Manager, Jojo Giltsoff, found inspiration dealing with scope creep in an unlikely place: home renovations. She says staying organized and saying no to "quick wins" is key, whether you're replacing your corroding kitchen pipes or keeping a product development project on track. "It's so imperative to have regular video or IRL stand-ups where engineers can talk through their approaches rather than slide by with a one-line update," she says.
"It's essential to have a formalized process for tracking tasks—for example, in a tool like Jira—especially for a larger team. If there's no ticket, you can't make sure it's correctly prioritized, and others in the same area of the codebase won't be aware. AKA, a total nightmare."
The same is true for OOS tasks. Teams can feel pressure to please clients and say "yes" even though a project's budget is screaming "NO!".
So, which voice should you listen to? 🤔
The answer comes down to the process you have in place. If a client asks you for changes or additions to a project, instead of saying "no," put a process in place that makes it easy to greenlight the changes and say "yes" instead. A step-by-step process should include:
- A specific OOS form for clients to fill out that clearly outlines scope changes in writing 📋
- Analysis of how the changes will affect the project's deadline and your team's capacity planning 🗓️
- All changes in scope, deadlines, and budgets to be approved in writing—by both parties ✍️
3. Use tools to keep projects on track
Having the right toolkit can help you accurately monitor a project's progress and stop scope creep in its tracks.
Using resource and project management tools lets you receive notifications if tasks are running behind schedule or if your team is being overworked. The right tools will also set off alarm bells if your project starts running over budget.
Architect Evan Goodwin says using Float to track his projects allows him to see what everybody is working on at a glance.
"We're a small firm that has grown in volume of work very rapidly over the past few months, so we're really hoping this will help us estimate our projected schedules for months down the road so that we can manage our clients' expectations on timing," says Goodwin.
A resource management app like Float can accurately layout when each task in a project will start (and be finished), who is working on what, and how much the overall project will cost. Using the time tracking feature, you can also keep tabs on your team's hours and tie them to the project's budget. That way, you can see how accurate your budget estimate is shaping up against the reality of the work being done on the project.
If it becomes obvious halfway through a project that your team is overspending, you can hit pause and figure out if you need to cut back on tasks or billable hours.
Finally, the right tools will also track your agency's capacity planning. If a client asks for changes or additions to a project's scope, you need to know if you can actually take on the extra work. Using Float, you can instantly check your team's availability before saying yes or no to the client.
Scope creep doesn't have to torpedo your project. Using the right processes and tools can help you plan, anticipate, and actually get the upper hand on scope creep! In fact, if you play your cards right, you'll even be able to use scope creep as an opportunity to boost your bottom line and go above and beyond your client's expectations. 😃
Stop scope creep in its tracks before it gets out of hand. With Float, you can combine your resource planning, budget reporting, and time tracking together—all in one place. Start your free trial today!
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