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Scope Creep: A Project’s Worst Enemy

by Kate Eby on Jul 02, 2018

No matter the size, length, or involved parties, a project can evolve and change directions rapidly, which can result in dysfunction, delays, and cost overruns. This evolution that often results from unforseen change is called scope creep. Of course, change and influencers are hard to control — the key to avoiding scope creep is to effectively manage process to achieve a desired outcome. In this article, we will outline the causes of scope creep and how to identify it throughout the life of a project. In addition, you will learn ways to mitigate scope creep using project management skills.

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What Is Scope Creep?

Scope creep, sometimes referred to as kitchen sink, function creep, requirement creep, or feature creep, are changes that cause continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project's goals. These changes can be unintended or envisioned throughout the process. Commonly, a project expands past it’s initial boundaries due to these course changes, which can be risky or harmful to a project. Often, scope creep results from adding features to a project that were not initially agreed upon or authorized.

In The PMBOK® Guide, the Project Management Institute (PMI) describes scope creep as “adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval.” Scope creep can be common, happen at any point during a project, and is scalable.

In business, it is key to review potential scope creep during the project management planning phase, taking into account how to manage scope creep and control its impacts.

Tim Brown

Tim Brown, owner of the Hook Agency, has designed and developed numerous websites and has also implemented marketing campaigns. “Scope creep can mess up relationships with clients and customers if it’s not accounted for and addressed by the professional or service provider handling the project,” he says.

In project management, defining the project’s scope is a primary action. Understanding the scope can help alleviate the impacts of creep. The scope outlines the projects boundaries, including the goals and deliverables the project manager, project team, management, or analysts desire. The scope should include the outcome a customer or client desires and manifest itself in product or software development projects via external or internal influence. Ultimately, understanding all of the players who can impact scope and the causes of creep is essential for effective project management.

What Is Scope Creep in Agile Methodology?

An understanding of Agile methodology can help shift the perspective on how best to manage scope creep. Agile allows project changes and contingency planning to occur throughout a process, supporting any unforeseen scope creep influences. Scope creep doesn’t have to derail a project completely, and Agile methods allow for a project team to be flexible in the process and respond to people’s changing needs.

Causes of Scope Creep

A variety of elements can cause scope creep during the project development process. A primary cause occurs when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled, including if there is a lack of clarity and depth to the original goals set by the project manager or team.

Other reasons that scope creep may arise include the following:

  • Project Complexity: When initially defining a project, clearly outline the project scope, contract, or statement of work (SOW). If you don’t, you create an work and expectations can be misinterpreted.
  • Lack of Change Control: When a project doesn’t outline a way to manage changes or amendments, it can be problematic when various team members make choices without consultation or review. Therefore, it’s helpful to establish a procedure for change management.
  • No Risk Analysis: The project team or manager may not have reviewed areas for risk in this project, including how budget and timelines could be impacted. This often results from a lack of a solid planning process.  
  • Unclear Objectives: Sometimes a lack of proper initial identification of what is required to manage and implement project objectives can create misunderstandings among the team.
  • Poor Management: Disengaged and poorly trained project managers or executive sponsors can create scope creep when there is limited participation or when personal agendas are influencing change.  
  • Overpromising on a Product: Without solid discussions about the end goals of a product and a proper risk analysis or resource review, managers can overpromise product deliverables, which can add to scope creep.
  • Lack of a Communications Plan: Without proper planning, there is risk of poor team and customer communication, as well as miscommunication about goals and deliverables. Unmanaged contact between customer and team participants can also create unforseen scope creep.
  • Gold Plating: This term refers to adding work or deliverables to a project, believing it may add value. Doing so can create creep without proper review, and often leads to increased costs and time.
  • Missing the Right People: Not engaging the right participants initially can change the course of a project.
  • External Influences: Outside elements including customer requirements, environmental changes, platform changes, changing market conditions, or competing priorities can easily influence your scope. Contingency planning is critical.

Effects and Results of Scope Creep

Scope creep can be impactful, but it is not always measurable. However, if you look at project outcome data, you can see where scope creep could be the culprit. The Standish Group’s CHAOS Summary 2009 found that only 32 percent of all projects were successful (delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions). Forty-four percent of that group were challenged (late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions) and 24 percent failed (canceled prior to completion or delivered and never used). Overall, this data demonstrates that unfocused project scopes can create havoc on the outcome, including increased expenses and the possibility of damaged customer relations.

Negative Results of Scope Creep

In general, scope creep has layers of negative results. These can be external or internal influences that affect products or customers, including the following:

  • Overspending
  • Not meeting project goals
  • Dissatisfied customers or managers
  • Unfocused energy and resources to unnecessary tasks
  • Impacts to employees’ health and quality of work environment
  • No end in sight for the project
  • Roadblocks for employees and project completion
  • Constant change in scope
  • Timeline delays

Examples of the negative impacts of scope creep are all around us. For example, a private jet charter company was moving to purchase and expand business by adding new 737 jets that would be converted to luxury aircrafts. In order to accommodate this new venture, the company needed to build a new hangar with IT infrastructure to support this process. Management moved forward with a building contractor who would also take on the IT details. The company IT staff offered assistance, but was told he was not needed. Throughout the process, many major details were missed because the wrong people were involved and those who had the information about the business technology were left out, resulting in additional costs.

Denver International Airport experienced the impacts of scope creep when working towards increasing the efficiency of their process of handling and transferring luggage. The organization wanted to move to an automated system that would cut down on manual labor and increase service to customers retrieving luggage. However, due to scope influences, the project went 16 months past the deadline and the cost skyrocketed. Additionally, the product was only able to be used in one section of the airport, leaving two other areas with old processes.  

Positive Results of Scope Creep

On the other hand, scope creep can sometimes create positive effects. Here are a few ways that positive results, unforseen and still risky, can support a project’s goals:

  • Increased revenue by developing more efficient products with unforeseen positive influences  
  • Better project outcomes and products overall
  • Increased partnerships and collaboration
  • Newly developed sub-projects

For example, scope creep sometimes positively impacts video game development. Initially, the Elder Scrolls: Arena video game was intended to be a medieval-style game. With the influence of scope creep, however, the game quickly expanded into an open-world, epic role-playing game, including many successful sequels. Similarly, the game Shogun: Total War was intended to be a straight forward combat-simulation game, but with influenced scope it also resulted in sequels that ultimately increased visibility for the title.

How Do You Avoid Scope Creep?

Scope creep can find its way into any project and create both positive and negative impacts. But scope creep can be managed and consistently reviewed in project planning and implementation. Managing internal and external expectations is key.

Ghost Blog Writers owner Dayne Shuda has seen scope creep affect his work and business when managing work outside his company’s scope. He comments on how he has been able to stay on track and support customer service: “Today, we identify creep by keeping an ideal model client in our mind — someone that buys fully into what we're selling. Their expectations are in line with ours. They aren't looking to micromanage. Everything seems like a good fit.”

Strong project management will often help you avoid scope creep, but below you will find a variety of activities and tools available to support your business in scope creep mitigation.

Utilize Project Planning

Laura T. Desmarais

Project planning can come in many forms. Laura Desmarais, a public relations strategist at LTD Communications, comments on the importance of including clear deliverables in project planning activities. “As an independent consultant and during my agency work, the goal of managing client accounts is to establish a statement of work that clearly outlines the client’s goals and how the agency will meet — and usually exceed — those expectations. There are often times when clients have additional corporate opportunities arise and will look for PR to assist in meeting those objectives. It is important for a win-win situation to work with my clients and communicate that new projects require additional time and will most likely require additional budget.”

There are endless tools, training, and experts to support projects. Below are a few ways that project planning can help avoid scope creep. 

  • Develop a charter for your project team.

  • Create a project workplan with specific assignments of people and resources.

  • Create a tight scope statement for you project.

  • Utilize a statement of work (SOW) to outline your work.

  • Develop a communications plan that will support the project team and customers.

  • Build milestones, deliverables, budget, and timeframe.

  • Use a Gantt chart.

  • Create a project evaluation and review technique (PERT) chart or work breakdown structure that supports evaluating the work from the beginning.

  • Define a progress reporting structure.

  • Include a detailed timeline for work.

  • Build in a clear and concise change management process that allows you to evaluate and approve changes to the workplan or scope, including analysis of the change.

  • Decompose deliverables into work packages where work can be completed in bulk or moved to another project if the scope changes.

  • Utilize project management software.

  • Write SMART objectives.

Manage Your Scope and Requirements for the Project

Understanding the needs of both internal and external customers is a key factor to project planning and managing scope. Often, doing a deep dive into product or project goals with the customer is helpful, as is doing the same exercise with the project team. These tips can help with that process:

  • Include a change management process in the scope management plan and follow both. Provide a process to make changes. Get started by reviewing these change order form templates and download the one that’s right for you.

  • Create a required management plan that you’ll include in the overall scope management plan that gauges involvement of customers and management.

  • Formally communicate, review, and get all requirements approved. Keep track and provide a transparent process.  

  • Make informed decisions with data-driven risk analysis.

  • Monitor the project’s status and baseline scope with your project progress system.

Define a Process for Collecting Product Requirements

Tracking progress efficiently and with the right amount of detail is helpful to tell the story to management, customers, or other team members. Having a way to understand what the history and possible future of the project looks like can help project managers mitigate hurdles and scope creep. Use these strategies to clearly define your project requirements:

  • Define how you will manage and collect requirements outlined in the scope and include the analysis phases, prioritization, traceability, and new requests.

  • Include ways to evaluate the process.

  • Manage all change requests and recommended actions (whether corrective or preventive actions). Make sure to document changes.

  • Compare and contrast outcome from your original project goals to gauge if you’re on track.

  • Look for positive impacts of scope creep changes.

Engage the Customer or Stakeholder Throughout the Project

Keeping everyone in the loop is crucial. Explaining the process and progress is helpful, and you should simultaneously provide an engagement tool for quality customer service. Communication can also provide reality checks and help preventative influences that could change the project overall. Here’s how to keep customers and stakeholders engaged:

  • Outline how you can involve external customers and stakeholders in the project, and ensure two way-communication and a review process.

  • Provide project status updates that engage sponsors, focusing on how deliverables will be realized.

  • Use tools like a RACI matrix to get commitment for approvals and for providing input, review, testing, etc.

  • Continue to get buy-in from your customer and project team.

  • Build in flexibility with clients and customers up front around timelines and finances.

  • Avoid passive project management. Be dynamic and provide collaboration for proactive review of scope and scope creep.

  • Continue to manage your budget.

  • Customers aren’t always right, but they are the customer. Incorporate ways to account for change or needed input. Find unique and creative solutions when scope creep does occur.

When managing external relationships and project, Desmarais shares how open communication and planning can support her work. “I have worked with leading technology clients who see the value of new opportunities a PR firm can bring during a planned product launch, media and analyst relations tour, or while promoting their executive team through thought leadership engagements.”

She continues, “When a new international trade event originated, my client welcomed the counsel that I suggested attend, and we used the event, which was targeting the company’s key customers and stakeholders, as a way to launch company news and arrange media interviews. In these types of situations, most clients welcome the strategic counsel and recognize how a new project, and the additional budget, can support their business goals. There have been hard decisions where a company has chosen not to work outside the SOW and that is to be expected. The best performing teams recognize the need for check-ins and discussions to identify what elements may cause scope creep, and what alternatives can be established for both parties to be successful.”

Desmarais’ experience outlines that customer services and project planning go hand-in-hand when managing scope creep. Maintaining ways for customers to engage with the internal team in an effective and inclusive way creates success.

Managing Project Schedule and Scope Creep Implications

Knowing how long the project will last will keep the team motivated. Maintaining progress and momentum, including addressing barriers along the way, can decrease implications of scope creep. Here’s how to keep projects moving along:

  • Keep projects focused and as short as possible.

  • Move projects into smaller sub-projects as appropriate.

  • Close out sub-projects to maintain momentum and show results.

  • Be aware of the penalties of scope creep that include financial and time impacts.

Identify and Manage Scope Creep with Smartsheet for Project Management

The key to avoiding scope creep lies in proactive project management. Any good project manager has tools that allow them to manage communications, create milestones, manage expectations, and develop a realistic timeline for project completion. Smartsheet is a work management and automation platform that enables enterprises and teams to get from idea to impact — fast. Top project management leaders rely on Smartsheet to help align the right people, resources, and schedules to get work done.

Use Smartsheet to create consistent project elements, increase speed, and improve collaboration with scalable options that fit individual work preferences. Hold yourself and your team accountable, improve visibility into team priorities, and ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

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