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What is scope creep and how can you avoid it?

Scope creep refers to the changes, additional tasks and growth of a project that goes beyond the original agreement. It can affect all parts of the project plan including cost, timeline and goals
4 min read

Claire Whelan

scope creep - visiblethread

For every organization, the kick-off of a new project can be a time full of excitement. You have agreed on contracts, the team is in place, and project goals are clear. Everyone’s looking forward to a successful result that’s been challenging but satisfying to build. Unfortunately, scope creep is often right around the corner, ready to throw cold water on that positivity.

In a 2021 global survey by the Project Management Institute, European respondents said 31% of their recent projects suffered from scope creep. The numbers were even higher in North America, reaching 37%. So how can you protect your project against scope creep, when so many projects experience it?

What is scope creep?

Before we come to a definition of scope creep, we need to understand ‘scope’. A project’s scope includes all the tasks the team must complete to deliver the project. The key thing here is that all stakeholders have agreed to the scope whether the project is internal to your organization or between yourself and a customer. Scope creep happens when one party strays from that agreement and requests multiple changes to the scope after kick-off.

Unless project teams handle these requests properly, the project will run late and over budget, with a stressed delivery team.

Professional project managers with years of experience understand that sometimes the growth of a project is unavoidable. It’s impossible to anticipate every detail in advance, especially for innovation and transformation projects. That’s why they build some flex into every project, so it can absorb minor changes without straying off schedule.

Part of the secret of successful project management is to have a process ready to manage change requests. We’ll come to this later, but first, let’s look at how you can spot scope creep when it happens.

Examples of scope creep

One common example of scope creep is in software development. The client and the developer decide what software functionality they need to achieve a business outcome. They agree on a scoping document, which lists all deliverables, costs, and tasks.

But after development starts, the client requests a new feature. Maybe the change seems like a minor adjustment to both parties. The developer agrees to the change without charging for extra time or resources, but this sets a dangerous precedent. Soon the client makes further requests, and the project scope grows out of control.

Another common example of scope creep occurs during construction projects. Both parties agree on the project scope, but once construction begins, the contractor falls behind because of last-minute changes. Perhaps the client asks builders to use a different material or wants larger dimensions in one part of the build. If the contractor accommodates one change, that can lead to further change requests, and scope creep takes hold.

While IT and construction are best known for scope creep, it can occur in any industry. One writer described a project to edit a training manual for a customer. Very close to the delivery deadline, the client asked her to change passive language to active language. She agreed but realized later that she should have first estimated the extra time and resources she’d need. Finding and fixing all passive language ultimately took her an extra four days.

Tell-tale signs

Project management professionals learn to spot the danger signs of scope creep. Often these lurk inside the language used. The client may approach the project manager – or people on the delivery team itself – with phrases like these:

  • “This won’t take long”
  • “Could you look at one thing for me?”
  • “There’s just a quick change I’d like you to make.”
  • “This is more urgent than what you’re working on, could you get started on this instead?”

How does scope creep occur?

Often the roots of scope creep begin with a lack of clarity during the scoping phase. Adequate detail must be included in the scoping documents agreed by both parties. Otherwise, assumptions can arise leading to misunderstandings that can throw a project off course.

Scope creep can also occur when there’s not enough consultation during the scoping phase. An upgrade at Denver International Airport that aimed to automate baggage handling is one of the best-documented cases of scope creep. Later analysis showed that stakeholders had flagged risks of an automated system, but the warnings were ignored.

In any upgrade, it’s essential to engage with the people who will work with the new systems. Skimping on this consultation may appear to save time up front. However, time devoted to the scoping phase can reduce project risk, including the likelihood of scope creep.

How to avoid scope creep

Strong, detailed documentation can help deflect the risk of scope creep. A clear Statement of Work (SOW) should be in place when you sign contracts, with a detailed overview of the project’s tasks, timelines and budgets.

The SOW is part of the overall scope management toolset, including the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The WBS is a diagram that takes project outcomes and breaks them down into smaller components and sub-components. This visualization illustrates who’s doing what and shows dependencies that exist.

Even comprehensive project-management documentation can’t eliminate the risk of scope creep entirely. However, maybe the customer forgot to request a feature that’s an absolute requirement but falls outside the agreed scope. Or perhaps the supplier didn’t know they’d need specialist skills on the project and must bring in a subcontractor.

The right way to handle these unplanned changes is with a Change Management Process. This tool helps the project manager stay in control when unexpected requests come in after project kick-off. The process dictates how to make, review, decide on, budget for, and communicate changes to a project. Critically, the process says who’s responsible for reviewing and deciding to accept (and pay for) requested changes.

A Change Management Process is a game-changer because it lets project managers move away from an uncontrolled process. It recognizes that scope creep is inevitable and often begins with those persuasive phrases; (‘Could you look at one thing for me?’).

Delivery teams are only human and can be eager to please, especially if the person requesting a change brought in donuts. Set up a Change Management Process and make sure everyone understands it. That way, team members know how to cope with change requests and know who’s in charge of making the call.