How To Avoid and Manage Scope Creep... The Deadline Killer!

July 5th, 2018 by Steff Green 13 minute read

You’ve created what you believe is a solid job management system. You’ve got all your documentation sorted and a letter of engagement worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Your client onboarding process feels like it’s working.

So why are you scrambling to finish work on time? Why aren’t you making as much profit on jobs as you should be?

Congratulations – you’re the latest victim of scope creep, the silent villain of service businesses everywhere. Scope creep robs you of profit margins, stresses out your team, creates dissatisfied clients, and causes missed deadlines and rushed work that could wreck havoc with your reputation.

So what exactly is this scope creep, and how can you manage and avoid it in your business?

What is scope creep?

In project management terms, scope creep is when the project ends up diverging from its stated outline. Usually, scope creep occurs because the client adds extra work that isn’t in the original plan, the client changes the plan in the middle of the project, or your team discovers the project requires a deeper level of work than originally thought.

Scope Creep Meme

For example, you might be hired to build a new website template for a client who’s using an existing platform. It’s simple enough and you’ve done it hundreds of times before. However, when loading the website template, you discover the client’s platform isn’t installed properly, and faulty code is breaking your template. It takes two hours of additional work to get the site running with your template. That’s scope creep.

Or, alternatively, you’re hired by the client to put some paperwork together for the incorporation of their business. However, halfway through the project the client throws another folder at you – paperwork for another aspect of the business they assumed was included in the price but you know in fact is not. That’s also scope creep.

And another example – you’re hired to create graphic design and collateral for a marketing campaign including website banner ads, a radio spot, and a magazine ad. Throughout the process, the client keeps changing their mind about details – they decide they want a coupon code, then they want a storewide sale instead. The radio ad becomes an online video, and the magazine ad sizing changes. You agree to take on all these changes, but they mean the project isn’t ready by the original due date. The client is irate. “Where’s my designs?” – scope creep strikes again.

If you’re in a professional service firm, you’ll come across scope creep from time to time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Changes happen, and delivering a project that meets your client’s needs is exactly what you’re here to do. But when it’s happening frequently and disrupting your team, you need to consider what you can do to curtail it.

Consequences of scope creep

Dealing with changing needs of clients is part of doing business. But if you’re struggling to manage this flexibility and scope creep is impacting too many jobs, you might discover that:

  • Your staff are getting stressed out and working too much unpaid overtime to try and meet deadlines or incorporate additional requests. This has a hugely negative impact on your team culture and may be causing feelings of resentment or a desire to look for another job.
  • The quality of your work is suffering because you’re trying to push too much out too quickly, and can’t take the time for quality assurance you normally would. This can impact your reputation in the industry, as well as your personal pride in your work.
  • Your profitability is being eaten away by projects running over budget and over time. If you don’t, you may not even be aware of the fiscal impact until your accountant delivers devastating news.

How do clients cause scope creep?

Our lovely, good-natured, well-meaning clients are to blame for the majority of scope creep issues. They just can’t help themselves.

Budget For Project

Clients may:

  • Misunderstand the original briefing process and forget to include important information or requests.
  • Be dealing with indecision in their own company, leading to lots of last-minute changes.
  • Have unexpected issues on their end that impact the project.
  • Forget to include key elements when creating the brief.
  • Be disorganised and unable to provide you the information when you need it.
  • Fail to understand the importance of their role in the process.

You can’t control your client’s actions or business, but you can put processes in place to minimise problems that can lead to scope creep.

How do you cause scope creep?

Clients aren’t the only culprits responsible for scope creep. You could unwittingly be contributing to scope creep issues by failing to be clear about the brief, or miscommunication issues between members of your team.

You may also be the victim of “Gold-plating” – a term borrowed from software development. Gold-plating means people on your team doing more work to over-deliver on the scope. This is scope creep that comes from your team, not the client. Wanting to over-deliver on the awesome is a good thing, but when you’ve got people constantly spending more time and budget on going above the scope, it ends up costing you.

Help! We’ve got a bad case of scope creep. What do we do?

When it comes to scope-creep, prevention is definitely better than the cure. If you’ve identified a current project that’s besieged by scope-creep, there are a few things you can do to try and turn things around.

Identify the issue. If you realise scope creep is going to cause a job to go over-budget or miss deadlines, the first thing you need to do is identify where things went wrong. This is vital for taking action. You need to know what’s broken before you can fix it.

Avoid the blame game. Often, scope creep comes down to staff caving in to demands of a pushy client. While you can speak to staff about the importance of avoiding this in future, don’t make team members feel bad in front over everyone else.

Speak to the client. Depending on where the scope creep has occurred and how far through you are, you may be able to go back to the client and explain that the work will occur an additional fee, and ask if they still want to go ahead with it.

De-stress the team. Your staff are probably working frantically to make this project happen. Let them know their work is appreciated, and that you have their back if the client complains. Bring donuts. Everything's better with donuts.

Suck it up. Sometimes, you have to take scope creep on the chin and accept that you’ll lose money on a job. Look at the situation as a business lesson and develop a plan on how you can prevent scope creep in the future

Preventing scope creep

Managing scope creep is one thing – stopping scope creep altogether is an even bigger win. Here are our tips for preventing scope creep impacting your business in the future:

Create a clear statement of work. If scope creep is a common problem, it might be time to take another look at your engagement letter to make sure you use clear, precise language and record every detail of the client’s requirements. Ensure that you get every client to agree to this scope of work with Practice Ignition. It may be a simple matter of changing the questions you ask the client. Janet Odgis for Huffington Post has some great tips for improving your statement of work, including incorporating budget flexibility and outlining the key decision makers before the project gets underway.

Document everything. Milestones, deliverables, communication, budget, timeframe – keep strict documentation throughout every stage of a process so you can see problems as they arise and identify scope creep before it takes over.

Discourage gold plating. Encourage chronic gold-platers to express their ideas during the project scoping stage, so they can be incorporated into the budget. Try not to reward gold-platers when their initiatives cause serious scope creep, as this sends the message that gold-plating is something you expect.

Include scope changes as part of your process. When onboarding clients, explain where and how along the process they can choose to increase scope, and how that will impact deliverables and costs. You should also require budget flexibility to account for scope changes. This enables you to plan for potential changes, and also shows the client how transparent and accommodating you are.

Project management software will save your bacon. Project management software helps you identify scope creep before it happens - so you can get clients and team together to hash out a solution.

Learn the awesome power of the word ‘no’. You’re in business to do an awesome job for your clients. It can be hard to feel as though you’re disappointing them by not being able to accommodate their requests. Get used to it. Know when a client is being disorganised or has changing requirements and when you’re being taken advantage of. Don’t let pushy clients walk all over you – embrace the ‘no’ and you’ll be much better off!

Brief your account managers on what to look out for. The buck stops with account managers, who must approve new requests as they come in. Scope creep often happens in projects overseen by new account managers who don’t yet have the understanding of what’s included and what isn’t. It helps to pair new staff up with experienced professionals who can help them prevent scope creep.

Scope creep and your process

At the end of the day, everything boils down to process. Even the best technology won’t help you manage issues like scope creep if you don’t have the process to back it up.

Kimberley Sack, senior product marketing specialist at Deltek, notes that “No process is set in stone – processes change as organizations evolve, but consistency is key. Create it, test it and change it where need be.”

If scope creep is hurting your business, it’s likely there’s a hole in your process that could be improved. Look at each stage – pitch/briefing, estimating, production, contractors, delivery, invoicing. Ask yourself what could be improved and automated. How early are you identifying issues that could lead to scope creep?

Are you educating your client as part of your process? They need to understand what can realistically be achieved with their budget, resources, and time constraints. You need to clarify reasonable expectations on both sides. Having a detailed statement of work and pre-project discussions aren’t going to highlight every potential problem or answer every question, but they’re definitely the beginning of a robust process.

Get feedback from your team about what’s working and what isn’t. Perhaps they need more clarification around deadlines, or scheduling needs to be more flexible to account for ad-hoc assignments? Are bottlenecks or poor communication between departments slowing things down? Who is responsible for communication with the client and what happens when the client contacts a staff member to discuss changing the brief?

By getting clear on your process and what needs to be changed, you’re taking the first steps not only to preventing scope creep destroying your life, but to improving your firm’s operation. By tightening up, clarifying, automating, tweaking, and outlining your process, you’ll be able to improve your margins, present a more professional image to clients, and save your team from tearing their hair out in frustration.

Scope creep is a normal part of doing business, but if left unchecked it can also sink a business. The key to avoiding the latter is to manage client expectations and make sure you have a clear process that allows for flexibility as and when it’s needed.

Have you ever encountered scope creep in your business? How did you deal with it?

Photo by Rosenfield Media / CC BY

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