Scope Creep in Project Management: Definition, Causes & Solutions
When a project stretches far beyond its original vision, it is called “scope creep”. Scope creep in project management is one of the biggest causes of project failure. This article will help you understand scope creep, its causes, and its solutions.
It happens slowly.
So slowly that it takes you by surprise.
I’m talking, of course, about scope creep in project management.
It usually starts with a small change request. Just a minor readjustment of the project scope. Nothing you’d even want to bill for.
This is followed by one more request. Then another. And another.
Before you know it, the “small change” has turned the project into a different beast altogether. Instead of five deliverables, you now have 15. But the budget and the deadline are the same.
Failed projects and frustrated project managers.
Managing scope creep is one of the toughest jobs you’ll do in your line of work. You have to walk the thin line between pleasing clients and keeping projects on track.
The better you understand scope creep in project management, the more prepared you will be to handle it.
I’ll share some answers and insights on scope creep below.
What is Scope Creep?
A project’s scope, as you would know, is everything that needs to be achieved in the project. It is a list of all that you’ll produce by the end of the project, and the work you’ll do in the process.
More importantly, the scope defines what you would not do in the project. If the scope is to create a website, you’ll create just a website and not an accompanying app.
But what if halfway through the project, the client requests additional features that eventually turn the website into a full-fledged app?
This would increase the scope of the project beyond the original brief.
Thus, you’d call this request an example of “scope creep”.
The definition of scope creep is contained in the term itself.
That is, scope creep is when small, continuous requests stretch the project beyond its originally defined scope. Since these change requests are often small, they tend to “creep” up on the scope. Hence the term - “scope creep”.
In simpler words, you can define scope creep as follows:
Managing scope is an especially big problem in creative projects. Clients often don’t fully understand what they want. As the project unfolds, they get a better idea of their own requirements. And when they do, they start asking for additional features, taking the project beyond its scope.
As you can imagine, scope creep isn’t good for business. It eats into your budget, cuts down your profits, and ruins your deadline estimations. Since you have to do more work than originally planned, you often end up missing one or more of the project’s objectives.
Unfortunately, scope creep is a very real threat for most projects. According to PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession survey, 52% of projects experienced scope creep. Even among PMI’s top performers, 33% of projects had some form of scope creep.
Worse, scope creep is rising, going from 43% to 52% of all projects in a seven year period.
Scope Creep Isn’t Always Bad
Going by the above definition, you’d think that scope creep is always disastrous for a project.
But that’s not always the case. For all its negative impact on the project, scope creep also offers some benefits:
- Improves reputation: Clients often expect that you’ll go beyond scope - to a reasonable limit - to accommodate their requests. If you constantly do that, you develop a reputation as an agency that knows how to serve its clients.
- Increase revenue: If you bill clients for the increase in scope, you can also increase your revenue.
- Optimize processes: Scope creep gives you an opportunity to improve your project management approach. Every time the project goes beyond scope, you get a chance to evaluate internal processes and reduce creep in future projects.
Of course, you should try to minimize scope creep. But some amount of scope expansion is natural and even desirable.
What are the Causes of Scope Creep?
Scope creep can happen for any number of reasons. A small change request snowballs into a big new feature. A new executive on the client’s team changes the project’s vision. A project manager fails to specify the scope clearly at project start.
Some of these causes of scope creep are beyond your control. For instance, if there is a management change at the client’s company, you can’t really predict how it will impact an existing project.
Most other causes, however, are avoidable with better PM practices.
In fact, scope creep is significantly lower in organizations with “high maturity” PMOs as compared to those with “low maturity” PMOs.
So what are these avoidable causes of scope creep?
Let’s look at a few below:
1. The project scope is poorly defined
If you haven't defined the project scope clearly, it is inevitable that things will eventually go out of scope. You might think a new request is beyond scope when it was, in fact, completely a part of the original brief - at least in the client's mind.
Part of the problem is that clients don’t really think in terms of “scope”. Their goal is to get an end product that solves a business need. Whether a request is within or outside scope is entirely your problem.
The onus of defining scope, thus, falls on you, the project manager.
A common mistake managers make when doing this is to rely too much on the scope statement.
It might sound contradictory, but the scope statement is actually a poor guide for defining project scope. It is too high-level and too early in the project planning process to give you an accurate estimate of all that is to be done.
Instead, take an additional step in the project plan and create a work breakdown structure (WBS).
A WBS - like the one above - breaks down a project into its constituent deliverables and helps you figure out whether a new request is outside the scope.
Since the WBS decomposes the project’s objectives into its constituent deliverables, it gives you a much better idea of scope. If the client expects a deliverable that is not on the WBS, you would know that it is certainly out of scope.
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2. There is no scope management process in place
At a status meeting, the sponsor asks your lead developer to add a captcha to the login page. The developer figures it’ll take just an hour, so he readily agrees.
Since it’s a small request, neither the developer nor the sponsor make note of this change.
Does this request fall out of scope? If yes, how do you manage it?
Requests such as these are among the biggest causes of scope creep. Clients and your team will inevitably learn about additional requirements as the project progresses. Without a robust system to manage these changes, the project will eventually go out of scope.
Some hallmarks of poor scope management practices are:
- No process: There is no centralized process for registering and managing change requests. Rather, project managers use status meetings to record changes in a haphazard manner.
- Unrecorded changes: Project teams circumvent the project manager to add changes to the project without recording them.This usually happens when someone on the team has a good relationship with the sponsor. Projects with freelance PMs often suffer from this problem.
- Unrequested features: Sometimes, teams add unrequested features to the project just to impress a client. This often happens in case of new clients, or if the team feels that they performed below par in another area. Since there is no record of these new features, it adds to scope creep.
In the next section, I’ll share tips on how to manage scope change requests.
3. There is little to no stakeholder involvement
In an earlier article, we listed “lack of sponsor support” as one of the five causes of project failure.
Unsurprisingly, this is also one of the leading causes of scope creep.
If stakeholders aren’t involved, a lot of decision-making duties fall to the project team. The stakeholder might ask for a big new feature, but deciding whether it should be within the scope becomes your job.
Similarly, if the project team runs into a bottleneck and needs to expand scope, there is no one on the client’s side to help. They might end up adding new features that help them wrap up the project, but which the client neither needs nor wants.
Of course, stakeholders don’t check out of projects without reason. Most are just too burdened by other responsibilities to focus on different projects. The more decisions you ask them to make, the greater the chances that they’ll lose focus.
There are ways to mitigate this risk, as I’ll show you below.
4. There is no uniform process for collecting requirements
Suppose a project has two key stakeholders. Let’s call them Mary and Jim.
In a meeting, Mary asks for a new feature. She knows exactly what she wants, and, with the help of the lead developer, you capture the requirements perfectly.
In the next meeting, there is another request, this time from Jim. Jim is more vague about his needs. And your lead developer is on vacation. You try your best, but the requirements are fuzzy at best.
Poor understanding between the client’s vision and yours is one of the top causes of scope creep (Image source)
As you can imagine, this inconsistency in requirements is likely to push projects out of scope. You have complete data for one request, incomplete data for another. Your team is forced to make decisions without fully understanding what they have to create.
This is a frequent problem in projects with multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder has his own notions of the project’s direction. If there is no uniform process to understand their needs, you can end up trying to please everyone - always a recipe for failure.
There are several other causes of scope creep in project management, such as:
- Projects that are too long and complex.
- Poor estimations and scheduling
- New stakeholders entering the project at later stages
As you’ll see below, most of these causes are entirely avoidable.
How to Avoid Scope Creep in Project Management
The first thing you should know is that scope creep isn’t completely unavoidable.
In fact, as we saw earlier, some scope creep is even preferable.
Your goal, thus, shouldn’t be to avoid it altogether. Rather, it should be to manage it. Have just enough scope creep to be beneficial to the long-term growth of the agency without actually jeopardizing the project.
How can you do that?
Following these tips will help:
1. Involve sponsors in the scope planning process
A poorly defined scope is one of the leading causes of scope creep.
One way to avoid this is to involve sponsors early in the scope planning process. Instead of defining the scope based completely on your interpretation, get sponsors to offer their recommendations as well.
Here are two ways you can do this:
- Ask sponsors to create their own project charter that includes the project vision and their business need. The overlap between this charter and yours would give you the project scope.
- Ask sponsors to define all high-level features that are not in scope. Knowing what you don’t have to do is often more helpful than knowing what to do.
2. Define the scope based on the WBS
As we saw earlier, the scope statement and project charter are inadequate for defining project scope. They only give you a high-level overview of the requirements, not an actual list of deliverables.
Solve this problem by defining the scope based on the WBS.
- Create a project charter based on your interpretation of the client’s needs
- Distill the project charter into a scope statement
- Decompose the high-level objectives in the scope statement into a list of deliverables
Your goal should be to find the specific things you need to create for the project to be a success. If the sponsor requests something that is not in the WBS, it is likely out of scope.
3. Create a change management plan
The change management plan defines how you record, track, and act on change requests. Without it, you risk losing track of changes and stretching the project beyond scope.
An effective change management plan needs the following:
- A centralized and easily accessible library of all requested changes and their current status.
- A way to evaluate the priority of each change request based on its business/project impact, requesting stakeholder, and urgency.
- A process to evaluate how the change will affect the project’s outcome, any dependent tasks, and existing schedules and budgets.
- A way to track actions taken in response to change request.
- A process to communicate any issues related to the change request (and who to communicate them with).
While a spreadsheet can suffice, you’ll see much better results by using a project management software like Workamajig.
4. Create sponsor-focused communication plans
If you send a busy sponsor a 10-page document with a dozen change requests, don’t be surprised when they don’t respond quickly. The project might be your top priority, but for the sponsor, it might be just one of many things they have to manage.
So while you can’t drag a disinterested sponsor back to the project, you can make your communication more interesting to them.
This involves understanding what the sponsor cares about and what kind of communication they prefer.
In your communication plan, identify the following preferences for the sponsor (or any decision-maker):
- Communication channel (email, Skype, SMS, etc.)
- Communication type (text, video, presentation)
- Communication length (long, short, only bullet points, etc.)
Your goal should be to make it as easy for the sponsor to decide on a change request. Don’t overwhelm them with information; give them only as much data as they need to make a decision.
Use a proven status report template to communicate issues in a quick, visual manner.
Workamajig’s comprehensive reporting capabilities make it easy to create client-friendly reports quickly
5. Simplify complex projects
If the project is too long or too complex, it is inevitable that it will run into some scope issues.
If the project is too long, break it down into smaller subprojects. This helps in several ways:
- Smaller projects have tighter deadlines, and thus, lesser room for scope deviations.
- Since you can close smaller projects faster, it helps maintain momentum and enthusiasm.
- Different stakeholders can take ownership of different subprojects. This improves decision making and stakeholder engagement.
If the project is too complex, consider turning it into a program with multiple project managers.
6. Collect requirements in “layers”
Every change request has its associated set of requirements. The bigger the request, the more complex these requirements.
A proven process to ensure consistency in requirements gathering is to collect them in three “layers”:
- Scoping layer, where you first identify the scope of the request, its importance, and its effect on the project.
- Expanded layer, where you gather additional information about the request, including making a list of deliverables and any dependent tasks it might affect.
- Detailed layer, where you bring in an expert to figure out whether a change is feasible, how long it would take to affect, and what resources you would need to create it.
7. Monitor the project closely
Is a “small request” turning into a 100-hour nightmare?
Are some resources working longer than their scheduled time?
Is the project team “gold plating” the deliverable to please the client?
Nothing can beat close project monitoring for spotting these scope creep issues. If the project is constantly behind your baseline, you know that there is a problem.
A good project management software will give you the tools you need to monitor the project’s progress. It will show you if something is behind schedule, if some resources are overused, and if you’re failing to meet your baseline.
Project management software like Workamajig can help you monitor projects and alert you when things go off track.
Over to you
Scope creep is a near-universal phenomenon in project management. It is also a leading cause of project failure.
Scope creep can happen for any number of reasons - ill-defined scope, disengaged sponsors, inadequate requirements, etc. Most of these issues, as you saw above, are perfectly avoidable.
Try the tips I shared above to address scope creep in project management.
Learn more about scope creep and other issues in managing creative project stakeholders in the guide below:
What are some of your favorite tactics for managing scope creep? Share them with us in the comments!
About The Author
Sylvia joined the Workamajig marketing team in ‘17 & with her background in graphic design & business, she’s an awesome addition. At just under 5 feet, Sylvia is a living testament to the adage that good things come in small packages. You can reach her by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.