Project Scope Creep 101: Your Guide to Understanding and Preventing It

by | Nov 1, 2022

In 2016, the U.S Census Bureau announced a bold change in the way the once-in-a-decade population count will be carried out in 2020. To make the census more efficient and inclusive while following the budget limits imposed by Congress, the bureau decided to invest in modernizing and digitizing the system.

However, the budget overshot by more than twice the stipulated cost and delays plagued the project. “Any changes in estimates would be a result of changes in project scope as well as the Census Bureau identifying additional opportunities for us to add value,” said the spokeswoman of the company managing the project, proving that such consequences were a direct result of project scope creep.

What Exactly Is Project Scope Creep?

When the uncontrolled changes in the project scope go far beyond the original vision of the project, they give rise to what we call project scope creep. It’s a subtle process, often uncaught before it’s too late, and that is why it is so important to recognize when your project is going down the wrong path.

However, alterations in a project are inevitable, and assuming that every adjustment requested by the client will lead to scope creep is a rookie mistake. It is only when these additional requirements fail to address and account for the effect on the time, cost, and resources pre-determined to complete the project that the scope starts creeping.

To recognize what scope creep in project management is, you first need to weed out what it is not. So, assess and evaluate every new request by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is this shared after the project scope is finalized?
  • Will this create additional work that may become unmanageable and too expensive for your team?

If the answer to both of these questions is negative, then you can happily accommodate the modification and satisfy your client.

Pro Tip: Don’t get confused between scope creep and feature creep. While scope creep is used for additional requirements, feature creep refers to stuffing a product with too many features and making it less valuable to the user.

Why Does It Happen?

Being as elusive as it is, it comes as no surprise that more than half the projects experience scope creep. While some of the factors behind it may be unavoidable, there are still plenty that can be handled efficiently if identified at the right time. Here is a list to help you determine what scope creep is generally the result of, and how each cause affects your project.

1. Mismanaged Requirements

If the project requirements aren’t defined clearly, the client can assume that certain requirements are included in your scope, even if they aren’t. And they will not be at fault here. For all you know, the client has always believed the requirement to be a part of the original brief. Lack of clear, defined goals can even result in you taking up minor tasks without realizing their impact on the project, ending up shifting the focus from the primary goal.

Moreover, the client’s responsibility towards the project ends at detailing what they demand from the product so that it can meet their business needs. How you manage the project by defining the requirements is entirely your cross to bear.

2. Undocumented Modifications

If the changes and addition to the requirements by the client are not adequately recorded, you cannot estimate whether they fall under the purview of the project or not. This may result in taking up tasks that hinder the progress of the project. Improper documentation also makes you unable to answer to the client about project delays or cost overruns resulting from such a requirement.

3. Last Minute Feedback

If you receive the feedback for the entire project when you’re more than 50% done with it, even a minor but fundamental request for change can result in wasted time for your team. With already packed schedules, it is essential to avoid last-minute feedback that can potentially impede the growth of your project. You create prototypes of your product at various stages of the lifecycle of the project, to give the stakeholders an idea of what different aspects of the product you’re developing would look like.

4. Poor Stakeholder Communication

If there is an unfortunate communication gap between you and the stakeholders and clients, or if there is more than one stakeholder on the client’s end, the difference in their opinions on how they want the product to be, can confuse your team and ultimately lead to scope creep. On the other hand, if you have connected your team members to the client directly, requests can be made to them separately and remain undocumented, which can also affect the scope of the project.

5. Underestimating Project Complexity

Another reason for a project inviting scope creep is if it is new, lengthy, and convoluted. When you’re missing the references of famous examples of scope creep for projects that don’t have a blueprint that you can refer to establish previous flaws, scope creep is bound to happen. The more complicated such projects are, the easier it is for scope creep to expand.

How Can You Avoid It?

Even though scope creep is the leading cause of project failure globally, only 6% of project managers list preventing it as a method of risk management. From the ones that do wish to deal with scope creep head-on, most focus on eliminating it, rather than suitably handling it. Scope creep is inevitable. The best you can do is manage it in such a way that it becomes beneficial to the project rather than obstructive.

1. Define Each Requirement Clearly

Ensure you get each requirement checked and approved by the client once it has been noted down. This will make sure that you do not miss anything the client wants to add to the brief. It will also allow you to account for more time and cost if the current estimate cannot fulfil the additional demand.

2. Allow Traceability at Each Step

Make sure the client approves each milestone and task at completion. This will help avoid the issue of last-minute feedback and give your team enough time and clarity to work on the next tasks, with the previous changes in mind.

3. Align Stakeholder Expectations

While defining project requirements, ensure that each stakeholder signs off on each step in the requirement formalization process. This will guarantee that everyone is on the same page, helping circumvent confusion within your team. Also, keep a single line of communication by not connecting your client directly to your team. Instead, be the person of contact between both the groups to avoid miscommunication.

4. Keep Proper Records

Record every change, even minor ones, requested by the client. Proper documentation can help you understand how the scope of the project is changing, allowing you to seek more time and money to account for it. In case the progress of the project suffers from any of these requirements, you can also use the records to help soothe a dissatisfied client.

5. Create Contingency Plans

For projects that you do not have experience with or that are fresh and have never been tried before, it is best to build some contingency into them by keeping the budget slightly higher and the deadline slightly further than what you think is necessary. Allowing some slack in your project scope will prevent creep if you experience any unforeseen circumstances.

How Can You Save Your Project?

Once you’ve been trapped in the scope creep cycle, you may think that your only option is to break your back in trying to satisfy the client. This creates a culture of acquiescence and may give rise to resentment towards the project or even towards you, within your team. The following options can help you deal with scope creep.

1. Find the Root Cause

Often, the clients themselves are confused about what exactly they need. When they ask for an addition, ask them why they think it is necessary and what user benefit it brings, or what problem it solves. Finding the root cause can help you resolve the issue in a way such that it requires no work or minimal work on your team’s part. Once you know the reason behind the client’s demand, you can look for simple solutions to it and present them with those, instead of blindly working on whatever is asked of you.

2. Create a Second Project

If the client still insists on alterations, inform them that they are in line and can be carried on in a second project after the current one is completed. This way, you are not denying their request but will still be able to bill them for all of the changes without having to rush to fit them within the time limit.

3. Zero Invoice Your Client

If you have to work on a modification without any additional costs, it is best to make your client realize that it is something you are offering to them to better your relationship. Every time a new requirement is presented, send the client an invoice with the cost of the service mentioned but zeroed out. This will create an understanding and put a monetary value on your investment in the relationship.

How Can You Deal With Clients Who Keep Changing Their Minds?

While it is always nice to have satisfied customers, you don’t have to let yourself, your profits, or your team suffer to achieve that. When clients make unreasonable demands that can lead to scope creep, use the following methods to deal with them.

1. Invest in a Requirements Management Software

A formalized framework of change control is imperative for preventing scope creep from occurring by acting as the first line of defense against unauthorized and uncontrolled changes, “- according to a study conducted by the Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics. Requirement extraction and management are crucial elements that result in scope creep if mismanaged, and regulating and formalizing them can significantly improve your change control process.

requirements management tool like Xebrio which enables requirement versioning essentially allows teams to document the changes in the evolution of a requirement, making it harder to squeeze in changes last minute. You can create a documented, transparent, and trackable channel between you and your client, allowing you both to analyze and sign off on each requirement and milestone, eliminating miscommunication. In Xebrio, work on a particular requirement does not start until the relevant stakeholders and project team members have approved it. And when a requirement is approved, it can be tracked throughout the lifecycle of the project.

2. Have Unambiguous Service-Level Agreements (SLAs)

Simple and straightforward SLAs that clearly define the terms that both you and your client agree on is a necessity if you want to avoid exploitable loopholes and probable messy disputes. SLAs can help you manage customer expectations and can work as a performance metric at the end of the project.

3. Understand the Client’s Intention

While it is easy to make the client the bad guy, you have to understand that a lot of the times, these changes are not imposed so the client can get something out of you, but because they themselves do not know what they require from the product until they see it working. Changes can crop up when the client intends to get the best product efficiently. Try and guide your client on how changes can be made that can add the same value to the product the client requires without hampering it’s growth or adding to its cost.

You Don’t Have to be a Scope Creeper!

Playing a scope cop isn’t easy, especially when you have to choose between profits and satisfied customers. A distinct understanding with the client before you start working on the project can help you avoid most of it. But, it is also imperative to be aware of any additions in the work when the project starts, so you can quickly identify requirements that are out of the scope of the project and find ways to manage them without affecting its development.

You don’t have to be the sole bearer of the responsibility to curb and manage scope creep. Using a requirements management tool and maintaining transparency within the team can both act as ideal measures for the members to scrutinize and discuss all project information. This involvement of all the stakeholders from your end can help either remove the risks, or, at the very least, mitigate them.

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