Understanding Scope Creep and How to Avoid It

We’ve all been there before — a one-month project timeline turns into three, and we’ve become lost in a seemingly endless sea of revisions. It’s quite common for projects to shift after the kickoff, making it easy to fall victim to scope creep, especially within the creative industry.

If this has happened to you before, you’re not alone. “A recent Deltek study on agency workflows, for instance, found that nearly 40 percent of agencies exceed their budgets because of scope creep” (HubSpot). Knowing how common it is to experience scope creep, let’s dive into what it is and what to do if you’re experiencing it.

So, what exactly is scope creep?

Scope creep occurs when a project exceeds what was originally proposed in the initial scope of work.

Given its name, it comes off as a bad thing — and it often is. Scope creep has the potential to cause a project to fail, whether it’s by derailing a project’s direction beyond repair, incurring higher costs, or straining the client relationship.

But there are situations where scope creep may not be such a bad thing and could ultimately lead to more billable work, all while improving client relationships. However, it’s a difficult dance to master, so we recommend keeping watch so you can recognize when scope creep is happening. 

How does scope creep happen?

One of the biggest mistakes that can lead to scope creep is not setting a clear project goal from the start. By not having a defined understanding of what a project should look like at completion, it’s easy to get sucked into a never-ending cycle of revisions in the name of perfectionism. There is also no clear way to measure how successful a project is if you don’t have some sort of set vision from the beginning, which could lead to client dissatisfaction.

Another common culprit of scope creep is the failure to be specific enough in your SOWs. Sometimes it may feel like overkill to define every single step of a project and its proposed timeframe, but it could absolutely save you in the end by giving you and the client a detailed guide to follow if things start to get off track. Additionally, it’s important to maintain consistent communication with the client and to establish mechanisms for feedback loops so that everyone is on the same page.

How to manage scope creep

You’re in the midst of a larger project and you can sense that things are starting to go awry. Now what? How do you get a project back on track while maintaining a positive client relationship and still delivering quality work?

A tactic that many have found useful is to break the project down even further into smaller deliverables. By having additional touchpoints during the project, there are more chances for client review, and therefore more chances to revisit the SOW to keep things on track. Using this tactic also enables you to share work with the client earlier on and more often, preventing a situation where the client is surprised or disappointed with the work presented.

Another common side effect of scope creep is known as gold plating, which can occur when your team tacks on extra features to a project in order to make the client happy. Without keeping this at bay, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of making minor improvements for weeks on end after the engagement should have ended.

With all that said, sometimes projects end up needing to change while you’re in the middle of them, and that’s okay! Changing the scope of work is not a bad thing and it also doesn’t necessarily imply scope creep.

What to do when the scope does change

When this does happen, it’s important to keep a few things in mind — your timeframe, your budget, and what success will look like under the project adjustments. You want to strike a healthy balance between requesting more time and money and taking on more work without changing the original deadline or budget — basically, make sure both your needs and the client’s needs are being met while maintaining a positive and trustworthy relationship. The last thing you want is for the client to feel like they’re being nickeled and dimed!

You may have an easier time navigating this change if you already have a great relationship with the client, but if this is a new client, make sure you are mindful of their situation and that you maintain communication throughout the process of amending the scope of work. Remember that scope changes happen all the time, so as long as you know how to manage it, you’ll be in the clear.


Categories: Project Management
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