As a freelancer, you’ll be handling scope creep most of the time. What is it, and how to adapt, and fix the issues when it comes to you?
You’ll probably believe you’ve created a solid job management system. 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?
That only means you’re a victim of scope creep, the silent villain of service business everywhere. Scope creep robs you of profit margins, stresses out your team creates dissatisfied clients, and causes missed deadlines and rushed work that would wreak havoc with your reputation.
When talking about freelancing, 75% of freelancers say they wouldn’t change their job. Although scope creep is considered inevitable, insidious, and can be highly detrimental to your productivity; if you allow it you may have additional work for no pay, reducing your earning power and robbing you of opportunities with new clients.
Fortunately, there is a way to deal with project scope creep, but first, what is exactly scope creep and how can you manage to avoid it in your business?
What is scope creep?
It is a phrase mostly used to describe the expansive change in requirements that begins sometime after project requirements are baselined at the beginning of the project and continue throughout the lifetime of the project. The goal of the project scope is to lock in these requirements at the outset of the project and minimize change as the project team works on deliverables. Therefore, these change requests are considered an unwelcome phenomenon that causes missed project schedules and cost averages. Agile project approaches offer an effective alternative to this problem: a value-driven approach that allows for change and drives delivery by focusing on the most important features, first using rolling wave planning and progressive elaboration. Agile timeframes and frameworks are designed to welcome and manage change, scope does not “creep”, because change is expected and accepted throughout the lifespan of the entire project.
When this happens, the original project plan changes forever, team members can no longer recognize the margins and responsibilities, and therefore, project completion becomes a bit fuzzy. Things are added little by little which means more extra work, or maybe a big side project suddenly gets tacked on the original brief, because the amount of content is considered to be handled with ease.
Either way, that is that. Now you have a mess, and a lot of time to dedicate to things that weren’t agreed on in the original plan. The best project managers are adaptable and know how to negotiate and handle when things shift away from the original project goals. If it is not handled smoothly, what were once small changes to your original scope, ultimately turn into big headaches down the road, the most important being missed project deliverables and ultimately in project failures.
Most software development processes begin by clearly and carefully defining what you’re going to make. The result is a scope of work, a powerful project planning methodology document that should include:
- An introduction that outlines the type of work being done and the parties involved.
- A project overview that includes objectives.
- The actual scope of work, including the work that needs to be done to meet objectives.
- An incremental task list that breaks the work that needs to be done to meet objectives.
- A project schedule that outlines when, where, how, and by whom the work will be done.
- A precise list of project deliverables.
- An adaptation plan for putting those deliverables into action.
- A project management report detailing any steps required to keep all parties happy.
- Success criteria and signoff, indicating when the project has reached completion.
Let’s visualize some real situations to have a deeper understanding:
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. Those scope changes and damaged workflows are what we call scope creep.
Or alternatively, you’ve been 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 to 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.
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.
Why is it so dangerous?
Scope creep can have wide-reaching consequences, turning straight forward and coherent project into a nightmare for just about everyone involved. It can easily lead to arguments over the division of labor – not to mention cost overruns, missed deadlines, and even project failures.
Not only does scope creep make you look bad as a project manager, but it hurts pretty much everyone involved in the project.
Scope creep is bad for you, the project manager because it creates confusion and even chaos as you work to reshuffle, reorganize, reprioritize, and get the client to cough up extra money for the new work they’ve requested.
Scope creep is bad for your team, as it kills their trust in you and the process. Your teammates are all striving to manage their time in a responsible fashion and with the objectives that were originally presented to them. Having additional tasks tossed on their plates is the last thing anyone wants.
Scope creep is bad for the numerous project stakeholders, who all have their own unique needs and expectations and might not be happy with the new direction or changes to cost and launch date.
And finally, scope creep is bad for users, who might end up with a jumbled version of whatever outcome or finished product was intended in the first place.
How does scope creep happen in project management?
If you think of project scope as a defined set of boundaries, it’s easy to see how those boundaries might be tested and even knocked down if you’re not paying close attention.
Project management isn’t just about understanding basic project management skills like planning, task management, and scheduling. It’s about managing people and expectations. Everyone has their own vision of how they want your project to play out and this is a potential source of scope creep.
Here are a few examples:
- Project stakeholders want to prioritize different features. In the course of working on a project, various stakeholders sometimes pile on additional tasks and responsibilities without even realizing that they’re violating the original scope and creating a whole heck of a lot of extra work for certain team members.
- Managers or senior team members want to keep clients happy. Scope creep sometimes happens because more senior team members are trying to keep a client happy, never wanting to say no or suggest that something might not be doable. This kind of scope creep is often based on good intentions but can have seriously problematic consequences.
Of course, not all the blame can be placed on other people. In many situations, if the project manager themselves causes scopes to get out of hand. Here are a number of ways that scenario happens:
- You didn’t do a good enough job of requirement gathering. Poor requirement gathering is one of the most common sources of scope creep. In other words, you didn’t sit down with all of the project’s stakeholders and set out the parameters before you get started. Doing this work upfront might seem excessive, but it can save everyone a lot of time, money, and annoyance further down the road.
- You aren’t able to keep the project on schedule and focus. Weak project management can also lead to scope creep. After all, what’s the point of having a scope of work if it’s not enforced and doesn’t act as a clear guide for every team member? If certain elements start to slip – like going over time and over budget, or underestimating the complexity of certain tasks – then the whole scope can be thrown off.
- You didn’t create a shared vision with stakeholders. The vision for both the final execution and the path to get there isn’t just for the team that’s working on it. No shared vision with stakeholders will almost certainly lead to problems, often in the form of expanded briefs and duplicated work.
- You have poor communication skills. In order to get everyone on the same page, you need to talk it out. Poor communication skills can be a killer when working on any kind of project with any kind of team, but it can be particularly deadly when it comes to scope creep. Expectations and the understanding of the project and everything it entails must be articulated clearly to everyone involved.
- You let last-minute user feedback derail your project. Finally, while user feedback is an integral part of agile project development, you have to know what to let in and what to ignore. Last-minute user feedback can absolutely derail a project that is supposed to be close to completion, adding unscheduled tasks that haven’t been budgeted for, either in time or money.
How To Avoid and Manage 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 from impacting:
- 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. It may be a simple matter of changing the questions you ask the client. Improve your statement of work by 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 the process 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 players 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 progress. When onboarding clients, explain where and how long the process they can choose to increase the 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 you in the end. Project management software helps you identify the scope creep before it happens, so you can get the 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 disorganized or 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 an 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.
Take an Advantage of Scope Creep
Besides getting clear on deliverables and enabling scope control through clear project outlines and contracts, you can also capitalize on project creep by building additional billed deliverables into your service list.
For instance, let’s say you have graphic design skills. If a client wants an infographic along with blog content, you can offer your design services as separate elements they can purchase.
When they request these additions, instead of allowing them to become scope creep, turn these tasks into extra paid hours for yourself by presenting your client with a list of available add-on services.
This way, they have the opportunity to choose between a little extra for the additions they want or sticking to the agreed outline.
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 is 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 and 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-intentioned clients are to blame for the majority of scope creep issues. They just can’t help themselves.
- Misunderstand the original briefing process and forget to include important information or requests.
- Be dealing with indecision in their 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 disorganized and unable to provide you with 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 minimize problems that can lead to scope creep.
7 keys to Beat scope creep
As we’ve been saying, scope creep is a common problem across all industries, and it can come from anywhere. But more often than not, it’s the fault of poor project management skills. Luckily, with a bit of upfront investment and the right tools, you get rid of that creep frightening your scope.
Know your project goals
How can you keep your project within its scope, if you don´t know what that is in the first place?
It’s true that the entire team still needs to keep the project on track, but it’s impossible to do that without understanding what the project is, what timelines are involved, who is responsible for what, and what the deliverables look like.
In addition to the nuts and bolts of what a project conveys, a shared vision must be agreed upon to see the project upon its completion.
The same thing goes for your entire project scope. Every team member should have a firm understanding of how each task relates to each other, to the bigger picture, and how any last-minute changes might be a distraction or counterproductive.
Get serious about documenting requirements
One of the best project managing skills out there is learning how to properly set requirements. In other words, being able to clearly define the timelines, budgets, and expectations of your team, company, and stakeholders.
While it can be nice to alk these requirements out, they need to be properly documented if you’re going to avoid scope creep. There are a few tools you can use here to help clarify your project requirements.
Using COR offers a simple way to document requirements, workflows, or even project knowledge and share it with everyone. Simply create a structure for your content and then write down all of your project requirements using rich text formatting, links, file attachments, repository files, and anything else your team might need.
Next, make sure that your product backlog is properly groomed and that all the user stories are relevant and up to date. User stories are short, simplified feature descriptions told from the perspective of your users and customers.
As a project planning tool, user stories help you nail down your requirements and make everyone clear on what needs to get done and why you’re doing it. It’s also a great opportunity to share and gather ideas from stakeholders.
Rather than waiting until later in a project when stakeholders’ feedback can send you scrambling, consult everyone involved in the project early on. Listen to their perspectives and feedback and look for potential areas of conflict or tension that you can hash out now.
Use project management software to keep everyone on track
If you want to keep your project on schedule, your team focused, and every one up to date, you need a project management tool. Not only will your project management tool help streamline the actual work you’re doing, but it will also help you identify all sorts of red flags that show you’re hitting a scope creep
Here are a few examples of how you can use COR to reduce scope creep and keep everyone on track
The first is task management. It will help you break large projects down into actionable tasks. This way everyone knows what specific tasks are assigned to them, what needs to be completed to hit your project milestones, as well as priorities and workflows.
Next, you can use built-in time tracking to log time spent on issues and tasks and compare it to your schedule and estimations. As a project manager, you can view a list of all tasks with their corresponding estimated and actual time spent on them to make sure nothing falls behind.
Lastly, it makes it easier to do regular sprint planning and retrospectives. This way, you have a clear vision of how the project is progressing and what might be causing the scope to creep. With all your issues already in your product backlog, planning future sprints or project milestones is as easy as dragging and dropping them into newsprint.
Create a change control process
While all of these tips so far have talked about ways to avoid scope creep, it’s naive to think it will never happen.
As projects stretch out for days, weeks, and even months, it’s important to have a change control process in place for reviewing and approaching reasonable changes and then updating the workflow in COR, for example.
In project management, a change control process is your workflow for ensuring each proposed change is adequately defined, reviewed, and approached before making its way into your task list. In its simplest form, a change control process involves 5 steps.
- Proposing the change. This is your process for how someone will suggest a change. It should include specifics such as a description, the expected benefits, and an action plan.
- Summary of its impact. Next, you need to summarize the overall impact of this change, including the cost of savings or benefits, impact on your schedule, new risks, and impact on other projects.
- Decision. Now it’s time for your project decision maker to decide whether to accept the change, accept it with special conditions, reject it, or defer for later consideration.
- Implementing the change. If a change is approved, it’s now your job to plan, schedule, and create a timeline for adding the change to the scope of your project.
- Closing the change. Finally, once a change has been completed, you need to close the issue and move it into your next retrospective.
Cor features are a great tool for tracking change requests, especially for customers. This way you have all the information you need to go through your change control process.
Set a clear schedule
Time and task management are crucial to sticking to your project’s scope. Yet it’s easy to lose track of time spent on tasks if they’re not clearly broken down and scheduled.
We already spoke about the importance of task management and making sure each task is clearly defined, prioritized, and assigned. But that’s only part of the battle.
One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to organize daily scrum or standup meetings. These are short, check-ins where you focus on completion since the last time you talked, your ongoing project, and if there is anything you, as an employee, need.
Learn proper ways to communicate with stakeholders and your team
Project management is about managing people as much as time and resources. On any large project, there’s bound to be a number of different stakeholders who have different ideas about the right way for your team to work.
To take control of your project scope, you’re going to have to learn to say no sometimes. Even to your boss, manager, or an important project stakeholder. saying no to people in power is never easy. But it’s the best way to protect the equality of a project, and that’s exactly how you should think about it.
You can lean on project management software such as COR, forcing informal conversations through change control processes. That way, it looks less like you’re turning down an individual ask, and more like the ask itself is just incompatible with the overall project trajectory.
Protect your team against Gold painting
Finally, while we might think scope creep is something that´s always imposed upon us, that’s not always the case.
Gold plating happens when someone works on a product or task beyond the point of diminishing returns in other words when you keep messing with something even after it’s hit the brief because you think you might be able to offer some value add.
It’s a risky proposition, though, because you could miss the point, rendering all of that extra work pointless. We all hit the point of diminishing returns on projects. And continuing to spend time beyond what was agreed upon doesn’t guarantee a better result.
Like so many other workplace issues, avoiding scope creek requires clear communication, managing expectations, a healthy respect for boundaries, and a well-defined path to the desired outcome. Making these a priority upfront will save a lot of time, energy, money, and eye-rolling from you and your team all along.