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Learn How to Deal With a Scope Creep

Olga Drobysheva
Get a pre-made project plan based on this how-to guide.


For any Project Manager out there, scope creep equals disaster and rapid change of plans. Ideally, the project scope should include a detailed overview that describes what should be done and the boundaries that should not be crossed. 

Alas, 'ideally' means 'almost never happens'. What happens is that the project features change in the process, the deadline shifts, and everything can go sideways, unless you are prepared.      
For this reason, this how-to guide aims to outline scope creep's:
  • Types and nuances — indeed, there are plenty of ways how the lack of preparation or knowledge can mess up a project;
  • Consequences — again, being prepared to any of possible outcomes is extremely important for a project's implementation;
  • Reasons for happening — this paragraph is devoted giving an answer to the question: 'Why' God' why this keeps happening to me?';
  • Ways of prevention & dealing with it — one of the main rules of project management: if you know how to prevent a problem — prevent it; if it's too late to prevent — know at least several ways of dealing with it.    
Let's start with a hilarious video on scope creep that gives more or less general picture of a major problem.

1. Define what is a scope creep

Scope creep is the increase, extension of project scope, requirements, changes in requirements, happening without control of a Project Manager.

It means that work can be added to your project that was not agreed before. Requirements can change, both in quantity and quality. Even the project can be pivoted in completely different direction. And all without (or because) you are not protecting the scope and controlling change.

Sometimes a Project Manager may not even realize that scope creep happens till it’s too late already. All of this reminded me the video on the historical scope creep:
Thus, the questions arise: how to be aware of scope changes, protect a project from scope creep, foresee changes and take preliminary measures? And what those measures are?

2. Check the types of scope creep

Let's have a look what types of scope creep are there:

2.1. That’s not exactly what we wanted

"That’s not exactly what we wanted" — when your stakeholders suddenly realize that they wanted something else, in another way, when they see partial results, first deliverables. Of course, they will try to make changes to turn projects according to their wishes.

2.2 Urgent change

“Urgent change” — situation changed, nobody knew that it’s going to happen, but what to do, no choice we need to align the project with the new reality.

2.3 Gold plating

“Gold plating” — let’s add gazillion unneeded, unnecessary features, stretch project schedule and budget but it will be “pretty”/will look cool/ we can show a nice report to top management and other more personal than practical reasons. Gold plating sounds pretty but turns ugly for your project.

2.4 Wishlisting

“Wishlisting” — similar to gold plating, coming from the sole idea “because this is how I want it”; based on single desire of a single stakeholder without looking at any data, customer and market requirements

2.5 Realisations

“Realisations” — we didn’t know what we wanted, but now we know. Classic scenario.

2.6 Fear of release

“Fear of release” — let’s make it better because we want to give something really good to our customers. That’s when MVP turns into complete software with plus one year in the project with a totally unvalidated set of features. And the real reason for that - fear of failure, insecurity, fear of “pushing that button”.

2.7 Being Agile

“Being Agile” — because we are agile; we don’t need to define the scope in the beginning, we also can have a flexible release date, we can figure it all out on the way and release when we are ready. Let me tell you, it’s a trap.

3. Mind the consequences

In any case, your project grows, extends, and completely changes from what was agreed before. 

Consequences: budget and schedule overrun, unhappy team members (they had to re-work multiple times), and deliverable that nobody actually needs anymore.

4. Find out why it is happening

But why this happened? When you were about to start everyone agreed on everything, and everything looked crystal clear. Or not? There are several reasons for scope creep that we will discuss further. 

4.1 You didn’t dig deep enough

You didn’t dig deep enough. In most cases when a project is initiated or requested there’s already a set of requirements. But are those real reasons to start the project? Or better, is the solution defined correctly? Often a project manager doesn’t ask enough questions to see the root cause of the problem or actual business goal to be achieved. Client or project sponsor, in their turn, may not know the best solution and request something they think is the best. However, they are not necessarily specialized in the field. Study the business case well.

4.2 Foggy project description

Foggy project description. When you initiate the project and write a project charter, you define the carcass, the cord, the baseline of the project. Everything else will be based on it. If it doesn’t have enough detail, if it is vague or ambiguous, you may have a problem later. Of course, project description is based on how well you identified the goal (see #1). If first had flaws, the latter will only make it worse and further from the real need.

4.3 Identification fail

Identification fail. I’m talking about your stakeholders. It’s not necessary to do full on profiling, but at least analysing and making a mental note on who can go all out start throwing additional requests left and right is a good habit.

4.4 Caving Project manager

Caving Project manager. Communication is the Golden Key to Project Management. I will never get tired of repeating it. First two points are based on it. Everything else is based on it. Communicating means not only listening or asking questions. It also includes actively letting stakeholders know what you understood, what you are trying to achieve, asking if you understood correctly, what’s going to happen next. It is also informing clients/stakeholders about work procedures, possible outcomes of their decisions and liabilities. Don’t go into your cave and keep stakeholders hanging. I know, the cave is cozy, but when you get out you may realize that your scope was creeped.

4.5 You were too soft

You were too soft. Of course, “customer satisfaction” is part of Project manager’s duties. However, it doesn’t mean that you should accommodate every request without

4.6 Change the change

Change the change. Every change should have a procedure that it should go through to be implemented. “Let’s change that little thing quickly” may turn in full on scope creep before you even realised it. Also, the meaning of change should be identified. There’s a difference in implementing small tweaks and scope changes. Ironically, most of us know the reasons, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what do. 

5. Develop a scope creep prevention plan

From the reasons described above, you already can get an idea on how to prevent scope creep from happening. But let’s just go in there with few more details. Here’s a simple scope creep prevention plan:

5.1 Ask a lot of questions

Ask a lot of questions. Make sure you ask what your clients/stakeholders want to achieve with this project. It’s a question that starts with “Why” or assumes a why.

5.2 State the complete set of requirements

State the complete set of requirements. Make sure that the set of requirements is complete, makes sense, enough to achieve the main goal and not overly excessive and unnecessary.

Also, don't forget to state the scope clearly and straightforwardly and let stakeholders agree to that.

5.3 Risk management

Risk management. Popular term nowadays which basically means that you look at your project from the point of view of Murphy’s Law: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. And at each point you see if the additional work can happen or a change. You make a mental note and you plan for what can be done to avoid, mitigate or deal with it.

5.4 Manage relations with stakeholders/clients

Manage relations with stakeholders/clients. First of all, communicate the procedures to stakeholders/clients (contractual obligations, cost of change that might be involved).

Secondly, do your stakeholder profiling. At least as a mental note. Who’s shaky, not 100% confident in decisions made, their level of influence on the project, level of involvement.

Last but not least, keep your stakeholders engaged. Show them your plans, partial results, communicate issues.

6. Don't leave stakeholders/clients on their own

Make sure your stakeholders/clients don’t go directly to production without letting you know to “give feedback”. That’s when adding “little things” may happen. By the way, check out this short video on 7 Top Tips To Prevent the scope creep. 

7. Learn how to deal with an existing scope creep

Of course, you may not always be able to avoid additional work sliding in. Sometimes there are valid reasons for it, sometimes not. As a Project Manager, you should be able to identify that and manage it. Here’s your scope creep mitigation plan:

7.1 Find the root cause

Try to understand what is the root cause for the change/additional work. Again your best friend - Why question. 

Sometimes client/stakeholder will try to come up with the solution that they think is better. But as it was said before, they may not be the specialists in the field. Project manager’s role in this situation is to understand what they want to achieve, or maybe what they dislike and offer a better solution. In many cases you will realize that little to no re-work is needed or it can be solved with future deliverables.

7.2 Consider personal reasons

There are personal reasons that can be involved in scope creep, especially when it is gold plating. Middle management wants to gain favor with top management, bosses want to brag in front of their friends and competitions. Show them how they can do it with what is already planned. It’s also part of the job to know and accommodate those goals as part of your stakeholder engagement.

7.3 Deal with additional work

Sometimes clients/stakeholders may still insist on change or additional work. Or something was missed in the initial plan. Or there’s a real valid reason for a change/add-on.

In this case, a Project Manager’s job is to communicate what it’s gonna take to add more work (additional cost, extended schedule, opportunity cost, resources taken from other tasks), what are the consequences (schedule and cost overrun, one change can drag in other changes). And let them make the final decision. 
Some Project Managers believe they need to “fight” with stakeholders to protect the project and scopes. But just remember that at the end of the day Project Manager is there to execute the project to make sure that client/stakeholder achieved their goals and are happy with the result. Let your stakeholders know what are the procedures for implementing the changes.If they are willing to pay for changes and you made sure they fully understand consequences, let them do it. 

8. Summing up

Things don’t happen on their own. There are people behind every act. People that influence your project by their decisions or by not making decisions. Knowing where “scope creeps” may hide, will help you to avoid a lot of changes or additional work.

Sure thing, this article is a basis of what scope creep is. In a case you want to dig deeper into the topic, make sure you talked to the experts in the field of project management. There is much more to the topic than it seems at first glance. Also, if you are interested in Project Management, check out this article.   
Story by
Olga Drobysheva