Scope creep: It’s an ever-present threat for project teams, a bogeyman lurking behind every decision, threatening to delay or even derail your current project.
For project managers, scope creep is especially frustrating. It almost always seems to be due to someone else’s decision — one that’s outside of your control or that you don’t even know about until it’s too late. Yet it’s you, the project manager, that usually gets blamed for any project delays.
The good news is you probably have more ability to manage scope creep than you think. In this blog, we’ll show you six common causes of scope creep, with real-world examples and multiple solutions for each cause.
What is scope creep and how does it impact your company?
Scope creep in project management is when the project’s scope (the work required to complete the project) begins to increase or expand, usually by adding features, deliverables, or tasks that go beyond what was originally agreed upon.
The concept refers more narrowly to unauthorized changes of this sort, those that sneak (or creep) into a project without proper discussion, authorization, and planning.
Not all change to a project’s scope is problematic: no plan survives contact with the enemy, and experienced project managers know that nearly every project will need adjusting at some point.
But when these adjustments happen quietly, without authorization, when they aren’t outlined in the project scope document, or when the changes become significant enough to threaten the success of a project, scope creep can be damaging.
Consider just a few of the ways that scope creep causes problems for businesses and project teams:
It frustrates and overloads employee workloads: You built a schedule that worked, but now employees feel like they’re expected to do more in the same timeframe. Employees who have been given more to do than is possible can quickly become frustrated, demoralized, and burnt out.
It raises expenses for your business: Budget estimates didn’t account for the added work, but the new work still takes time and money. Scope creep makes you come in over budget (and may not add any additional revenue).
It confuses project teams about the project’s goals: Teams should be operating from a charter, statement of work, or project proposal that keeps them focused on the right goals and objectives. Scope creep starts to erode that focus by introducing new, often undocumented subgoals and objectives. Team members focused on those new goals can even start to work at cross purposes with those focused on the original goals.
It increases the risk of delays and even project failure: Scope creep always involves additional work that wasn’t planned for. Even when changes are introduced correctly (through change requests, for example), additions frequently cause delays and missed deadlines. Handled poorly, scope creep can even be the catalyst that leads to project failure.
Bye-bye burnout and hello efficiency
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6 common causes of scope creep and tips to prevent and manage them
Scope creep can cause destruction and dysfunction, and project management best practices say it's critical to stay on top of it, at all costs. But it's incredibly common.
If you’re struggling with managing scope creep, you’ll likely recognize some of these common instigators. We’ll give you actionable, real-world solutions for each so you can rein in your project schedule and keep your team functioning optimally.
6 common causes of scope creep
The project scope isn’t detailed enough
Unexpected needs or requests come up
There are too many stakeholders involved in the scope approval process
There’s a lack of stakeholder support
The process for determining scope is inconsistent or outdated
There’s too much focus on appeasing clients
1. The project scope isn’t detailed enough
When you recognize project scope creep starting to occur, it’s tempting to blame external forces, like key stakeholders or clients who can’t make up their minds. Before shifting blame to those groups, make sure that the project scope you’ve created (with input from many) is sufficiently detailed.
Vague scope terms are a form of poor communication. They can lead to a lack of understanding about what will actually be accomplished and what project deliverables will be received.
Good team communication (especially written communication — just ask our writers!) is difficult. But when the scope of a project is vague or unclear, it creates a breeding ground for scope creep.
People make incorrect assumptions or assume leeway/permission where none was intended. Here are a few examples of scope creep due to a vague or too-general project scope document:
Varying interpretations: Team members may interpret the scope in different ways. This leads subgroups to create features they think are in scope but realistically were never intended to be.
No set boundaries: An opportunistic department manager might notice some vagueness in the scope document and fit in deliverables that weren't correctly planned. It's not technically wrong, but the document should've clearly stated the boundaries.
Poor handoffs: A client might assume to receive more than what was promised by sales or business development teams. But during handoffs, the client expects more than the deliverable team could possibly take on.
How to be more thorough in project planning
Start with a high-level scope document, but don’t stop there: further break down the project scope using a work breakdown structure (WBS).
Specify both what is in scope and what is out of scope for a project. If you create boundaries that explicitly show what is possible, you have a better chance of additional work being excluded from the project.
Use a project management solution like Teamwork that's built for client work. Easily layout the entire project by tasks, giving stakeholders and clients visibility into what is and isn’t in scope.
2. Unexpected needs or requests come up
Even in the best of circumstances, the most experienced project managers will still run into unexpected needs that require retooling project schedules and adjusting project scope.
There are tasks and events that no one could’ve predicted — think about how the pandemic changed both the nature of work and desired feature sets in certain products or software deliverables.
And there are also going to be times where your client makes a request mid-project that’s entirely reasonable or otherwise simply must be accommodated. It’s not a crime to fail to foresee every eventuality or needed feature.
New requests for additional features come up all the time – especially in software-oriented workflows. The problem happens when the proper channels aren't used and tasks get assigned or moved on behind the scenes. When project managers don’t know about the extra work, they can’t account for the time it requires.
The pandemic offered a very teachable scenario. Countless companies were in the building phases of new features in early 2020 (we certainly were!). But so much changed in overall planning once March 2020 hit, which derailed a lot of businesses.
Restaurant apps needed new functionality to account for contactless curbside pickup and online ordering, while some healthcare projects had to pivot hard so they could deliver functionality that was useful during a pandemic.
For some, like Zoom, the company saw 3,300% growth in October 2020 compared to the previous year. And more likely than not, they had to pivot to address the wave of new users.
How to address the unexpected
It's not easy to prepare for the unexpected. But you can start by requiring all project changes to follow your established change control process. This is where you use scope management strategies to define who is responsible for deciding how unexpected needs are resolved.
Make sure to communicate clearly with stakeholders the implications of any change: higher costs, project delays, etc. Then you can ensure any approved scope changes (and associated milestone changes) are documented within the scope statement.
Give stakeholders a visual breakdown of what adding the feature will do to the project timeline through detailed Gantt charts. Tools like Teamwork make it simple to show workload capacities and what additional hours spent on specific projects will do to the timeline.
3. There are too many stakeholders involved in the scope approval process
Having too many people involved in the scope-building and finalization process can lead to inconsistent messaging and scope drift. Before long, the project objectives are muddled, and the scope contains more than is truly necessary (and more than the team can realistically accomplish).
In this situation, the scope creep happens as the scope is being created — it gets baked in! The result isn’t pretty: even the approval process becomes a frustrating, demoralizing experience that gets drawn out for far too long.
Some growing small and medium businesses face this challenge because they aren’t adjusting processes as they scale. When a business has 20 employees total, it can make sense for directors and founders to have direct input.
But for ballooning businesses with 500+ employees, department leaders and senior managers should be taking on the majority of input. They can’t all stay involved at that same level, but it doesn't mean leaders can't be included or at least get insightful views into projects.
How to limit the number of stakeholders
Limit the scope approval process to stakeholders with a direct interest in the project. You can establish policies for how to determine what qualifies as a direct interest in the project.
For scaling businesses, you might consider holding a workshop in agile project management.
But for the leaders that want to be involved, there's a solution that still gives control to team leads, but access to owners. Use Teamwork's project scheduling features to give people like agency owners a full-scale view of the upcoming work so they're not completely left out of what's to come.
4. There’s a lack of stakeholder support
We just covered the problem of too many stakeholders caring too much about the details. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s an equally dangerous cause of scope creep: disengaged, unsupportive stakeholders.
These are stakeholders who can’t be bothered to read the scope documents before “approving” them. They can cause all sorts of problems for you.
For these folks, somewhere down the line, something gets their attention and then they want to add features or change the scope in other ways. This just leads us back to the first and second pain points.
Unsupportive stakeholders give teams a false sense of security, leading agencies and service companies to assume that they’re building an accurate deliverable. But then as the project progresses, at each stage of the process, teams encounter scope creep that could have been mitigated if the stakeholders (sometimes, the clients themselves) had been more involved at the start.
How to get the support you need and nothing more
It might sound a little harsh, but if you're managing projects, you only need the support that gets projects across the finish line. And that doesn't involve everyone in your agency.
Make scope meetings and status updates more visually engaging so that you’ll more easily catch the attention of disengaged stakeholders. In fact, a RACI chart or matrix can help define responsibilities. But this only tends to be effective with internal stakeholders.
If you need to, list the lack of stakeholder participation as a possible risk. It's aggressive, but you’ll at least have something to point to if this problem affects the project.
Some clients continuously cause this problem even after you've addressed it. Instead, either build in some additional contingency time for their projects or consider how you can better measure billable hours across projects.
Billing clients can be tough if they don't get what they expect. But with Teamwork's Profitability Report, you can give or review clear and transparent insights into the work your team has completed and how it relates to your project budget.
5. The process for determining scope is inconsistent or outdated
A common problem for early-stage startups and businesses just starting to scale is reining in inconsistent processes. When you’re just getting started, any scope development process is better than none, so not everyone is necessarily doing it the same way.
And truthfully, there’s a degree of iteration that’s healthy here. You need to find what works best for your business, and when you’re just starting out, you simply don’t know what that is yet.
Still, as you grow, eventually you’ll want to settle on a single, documented, repeatable process for developing and communicating scopes. The alternative is pure chaos, and if you’ve ever lived it, you know you don’t want to end up there again.
Conversely, mature companies face a mirror image of this problem. They documented their scope development process 15 years ago, and it hasn’t officially changed since.
Newer tools have come along and the wording just doesn’t reflect the way business works today, so project managers don’t really follow the process as it is documented. Left unchecked, this approach ends up in the same place as the growing startup: pure chaos, with project managers each doing whatever seems best in their own eyes.
How to update workflows and create new processes
First thing's first, create a documented scope development process so that all project managers have a clear process to follow. If you were missing one or need to update it, a completely new process will clear the air of what to follow.
Also, try to revisit that process documentation at set periods (e.g., once a year or every six months. It will help you ensure it reflects reality and includes any new tools your teams are using.
Lastly, communicate any significant changes to the scope development process to anyone who’s involved in using that process. If people are left out, how will they know anything has changed?
6. There’s too much focus on appeasing clients
Generally speaking, appeasing clients' needs is a sound business strategy. Agencies that regularly disappoint their clients don’t have a great track record of staying in business.
It’s easy to make small day-to-day decisions to help clients, especially the ones you really care about or that are highly valuable to your company. And when those small changes make your own work look better in the end, they can seem like obvious wins.
The problem here is that too many small client-appeasing changes quickly add up. This can turn into schedule-destroying scope creep.
No matter how small or how helpful the change, you didn’t plan for it in your project scope. That means that whatever time is spent on these changes may as well get tacked on to the end of the project.
Sometimes this happens when a stakeholder or client approaches a team member directly – asking a person to add a "very small update." It's tough for some members to say no, so it gets done, but's not that small.
Even if it only takes up a day, it was time unaccounted for against what was planned for scope.
How to give clients what they want without derailing scope
For agencies and client services teams, it can help to create a no-tolerance policy for gold plating (adding features that seem interesting or add functionality but that weren’t planned for).
But for some teams, that's just not possible. Instead, try to establish clear procedures for change requests. With Teamwork, you can invite all your clients for free to see project progression so they have a real visual representation of the originally planned project scope and how their new requests will harm it.
Create a team culture where all are working toward defined goals and no one assumes it’s OK to innovate or accommodate silently. If you're worried about "too invasive" of clients, Teamwork allows admins to set permissions and specific access so clients only see what's important to them.
Eliminate scope creep with the help of Teamwork
Scope creep is an ever-present threat in the world of projects and is something savvy project managers must watch for and combat through all project stages. The scenarios and solutions we’ve provided here can give you an advantage as you manage scope creep on your projects.
But you also need the right project management tools to help you.