Project management is notoriously complex. Dynamic internal and external factors impact project deadlines, budgets, and scope creep—particularly as stakeholders present new insights for improvements as the project progresses. Besides overly flexible creativity expanding the project’s scope, additional elements can continuously swell the project size and design, resulting in what is known as scope creep. In this article, learn what scope creep is, what causes it, and how to mitigate it.
What is scope creep?
Scope creep is how a project’s features, requests, and requirements increase from its initial scope over the course of the project life cycle.
All successful projects begin with excellent planning. An integral part of project planning is to create the scope of the project, which constitutes the work plan. The project plan outlines all deliverables to meet the required scope of the project, including its specifications, the schedules guiding each phase of the project, and any restrictions. Essentially, project scope refers to the requirements integral to delivering a completed job within specific parameters.
Clarity surrounding the project scope provides direction to the team, so project managers must clearly establish the scope in the planning phase and widely share it with team members. Transparent sharing of the scope informs team members of their roles and responsibilities.
Clear, continuous communications help team members understand what they should achieve. Only when the team has a defined scope and fully understands how their contributions help drive successful outcomes can they fully commit to a collaborative effort to achieve mutual goals.
No matter how good planning is, scope creep tends to set in during the planning and execution phases. Stakeholders may add additional elements to the project not previously considered or identify other requirements as the work moves forward. Because project management is so complex with many moving parts, scope creep is not uncommon across diverse industries involved in various projects. Unfortunately, scope creep has long-term negative consequences, severely impacting budgets, deadlines, and, sometimes, reputations.
Examples of scope creep.
Scope creep is called “creep” because it tends to sneak up on you without warning. For example, a project manager may want to please their client and make a small addition to the original scope, which seems harmless enough. The project manager soon begins to receive more change requests, and they lose control of the original scope.
Here are specific examples of how scope creep can eventually be counterproductive despite the best intentions:
- An external client requests help with building an app. A plan is drawn up and accepted, but the client keeps making new requests along the way. Finally, the project manager realizes they are dealing with an outsourcing agent who has not shared comprehensive client information, resulting in continuous changes due to misunderstandings.
- An internal project to upgrade the Wi-Fi system is accepted and planned. Scope creep sets in when the financial manager and project managers are at loggerheads due to a lack of budget sign-offs. Internal politics results in ongoing delays and budget override.
- A software development team creates an integrated internal reporting system unique to the organization. The marketing department suggests improvements that clash with the original design. Lack of communication with other departments causes additional change requests. A project designed to take ten months is extended to three years, accompanied by a budget eight times the original amount.
- A company desires a new airplane hangar built with current technology, linking it to existing administrative buildings. The project manager orders a new system for the installation, only to realize no one has checked whether they can integrate the new system with the existing one. The budget increases by $60,000 to make the old system compatible.
Common causes of scope creep.
Scope creep comes about in several ways. Lack of planning can cause constant delays. Poor communications management can cause misunderstandings. An absence of clear direction and leadership discourages team confidence in themselves, the leader, and the project deliverables. Even if a plan has been well established and documented, inadequate control of scope creep will throw a spanner in the works.
Here are just a few causes of scope creep:
- Ambiguous project goals
- Client making additional requests throughout a project
- Attempting to satisfy all stakeholders instead of compromising
- Disconnect between management’s expectations and team members’ efforts
- Poor communication between collaborating teams
Ambiguous project goals.
“When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The same concept applies to vague project goals and requirements. Ambiguous goals leave open spaces for scope creep to set in rapidly, which is why organizations should revisit their strategic goals. Align project teamwork with organizational goals to draw up a clear plan, or expect scope creep to dominate the project.
Client making additional requests throughout a project.
Project managers can find themselves bowing to pressure. When the project is lucrative and the client is influential, there is much at stake. Even if the client is not particularly influential, the promise of future work creates a situation of wanting to meet client demands.
Unfortunately, meeting one or two extra requests can lead to significant delays and budget overruns. The client’s response may be neutral due to an imbalance between these aspects when the project manager fails to exercise strict controls.
Attempting to satisfy all stakeholders instead of compromising.
Project managers should focus on the stakeholders connected to the project directly. The project manager must weigh concerns from stakeholders throughout the project, but also exercise strategic leadership and focus on compromising to promote productivity rather than reacting to extraneous objectives.
Disconnect between management’s expectations and team members’ efforts.
Often, management expectations can outweigh resources. A lack of insight into existing capabilities causes a disconnect, resulting in a lack of buy-in from employees when project managers expect too much or too little. Inappropriate work management tools, poor planning, and time-wasting processes all make an unhealthy mixture of elements that generate dissatisfaction and unwanted outcomes.
Poor communication between collaborating teams.
Poor communication between collaborating teams is one of the biggest problems in project management. Efficient communication between all stakeholders drives project success, but scope creep manifests when this vital element is missing. Duplicated work, delayed work, and elevated expenses characterize the project, leading to undesirable consequences.
How to prevent scope creep.
Preventing scope creep begins with sound strategic planning. Project managers can learn a lot from strategic managers when developing their project scope statements and related documents. Once the project manager defines the scope statement, they should use it to guide further project documentation and regularly update it to align with approved change requests.
Examine these guidelines to help restrict the potential for scope creep when starting your next project.
Solutions to limit scope creep in your next project include:
- Be firm when necessary
- Be proactive about possible sources of scope creep
- Have ongoing discussions about project scale
- Have a system for saving great ideas to tackle later
- Choose a project management methodology
- Use an effective project management software
Be firm when necessary.
Part of strategic thinking is to remain adaptive to environmental influences. Stick to scope limits assertively from the start to limit scope creep without being too inflexible.
Circumstances will inevitably arise where you will need to be open to change, but set your parameters from the start regarding how much leeway the project can cope with. Establish an effective control process from the outset to overcome scope creep stemming from multiple additional requests outside the initial scope document.
Be proactive about possible sources of scope creep.
To overcome potential sources of scope creep, create appropriate solutions to respond to anticipated problems from the start, limiting their negative impact on the project.
Have ongoing discussions about project scale.
Project scale is a primary focus of any new endeavor because costs and time can escalate scope creep. Implement project cost management when discussing a consistent scale with clients and related stakeholders to reduce the risks of going over budget and deadlines.
Have a system for saving great ideas to tackle later.
When working on a project, your team needs one tool to deposit creative ideas for later review. An app that identifies scope creep can come in handy, for example. The use of integrated solutions can help create a dedicated location to manage new ideas for later application.
Choose a project management methodology.
Selecting an appropriate methodology to follow will help define the parameters of your project. Choose the right project management methodology to suit your goals, whether in marketing, IT, product development, or another field. Understanding project deliverables and which methodology is best suited to align with specific goals can make all the difference in reducing unwanted scope creep and promoting project success.
Use an effective project management solution.
Select a project management solution that helps you plan, track, collaborate, and make necessary changes in real time. Aligning project goals and team effort can help reduce scope creep to produce results that matter.
Defining scope to ensure success.
Scope creep is such an insidious element, it can become a problem before you realize it. Budget and deadline overrides are the major unwanted outcomes of scope creep. However, you can limit scope creep by applying the appropriate tools and methodologies.