How to Spot and Mitigate Scope Creep

Every project inevitably deals with expanding scope and thereby increasing the chance of failure. The Blueprint walks you through how to resolve scope creep.

Updated March 4, 2020

Every business tackles projects. With each project, customers and people across the company contribute a seemingly endless array of requests for the project task list.

Acquiescing to too many of these requests at once can sound the death knell for a project — or even the business.

No company has infinite resources and staff. A company that cannot focus its efforts will spread its resources too thin and thus accomplish little. That’s the danger of project scope creep.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep refers to how a project’s objectives or extent of work tend to grow over time, exceeding the initial parameters of the project. When this happens, the project is adversely affected.

The results can be missed deadlines, exceeded budgets, or staff pulled away from other initiatives to address the scope creep. It is among the project manager’s responsibilities to minimize scope creep risk.

To effectively address this problem, it’s important to first understand the concept of project scope. A project’s scope defines the intended project objectives and deliverables along with the specific tasks required to achieve those goals. The more clearly defined the project scope, the less likely scope creep will happen.

What causes scope creep to occur?

Scope creep is a normal part of the project management process. It usually happens slowly or seems innocuous on the surface, so it can be difficult to detect. Let’s examine the various causes of scope creep and what you can do to mitigate the issue.

Poorly defined project scope

A poorly defined project scope is one of the biggest causes of scope creep. Many projects are initiated by a business need, but these needs are not outlined in project terms, so they often lack the clarity and quantifiable outcomes required to properly define a project’s scope.

For example, a sales team may find they need a way to manage their customer relationships. A project manager is then tasked with finding a solution and implementing it within three months.

On the surface, this request seems straightforward. However, to get to a true project scope, a good project manager should ask and get answers to many clarifying questions, such as:

  • Specificity: What kind of functionality does the sales team require to solve their issues, and what can they live without? Perhaps the problem is that sales representatives have a hard time tracking their leads, or sales managers don’t have visibility into their team’s customer pipeline.
  • Budget: Can the solution be CRM software, or do budget constraints prevent that approach?
  • Time frame: Given the specific problem to solve, is the three-month timeline feasible?

As this example illustrates, business needs are often amorphous, and until translated into a tightly-defined project scope, the project is vulnerable to scope creep.

How to avoid poorly defined project scope:

To avoid a poorly defined project scope, use the fundamental project management principles. Beyond applying these project management basics, you can zero in on the following areas:

  • Define measurable goals: Once a project is identified, define the goals using measurable outcomes to track progress. In the example of the sales team’s need, a quantifiable goal might be to increase lead conversions by a specific percentage. In addition, translate the project into a charter that outlines the business need, project vision, and project scope to align the need with the outcomes.
  • Obtain stakeholder buy-in: To ensure business needs are met, review the project charter and goals with the stakeholders who identified the need in the first place as well as any executive sponsors. They should agree on the parameters set forth in the project scope so that expectations are properly set from the start.
  • Create a work breakdown structure: The work breakdown structure (WBS) identifies the tasks required to complete a project. This level of detail helps the project manager assess realistic timeframes, resource allocation, and budgets for the project based on the agreed-upon scope. If it’s clear the project work exceeds the desired timeframe, the project manager can partner with stakeholders to find acceptable solutions, such as reducing the project scope, adding staff, or extending deadlines.
  • Leverage a feasibility analysis: Before a project is approved, it’s customary to perform a feasibility study to validate the project’s rationale and practicality. Use the study’s findings to add structure to the project scope and tighten its parameters.
  • Note what’s not in scope: One of the ways project scope definition fails is that it’s unclear what is not part of the scope. Therefore, delineate any items that are not included. This is particularly important if legal contracts related to project delivery are involved.

Lack of stakeholder involvement

Since projects address business needs, the stakeholders who stand to benefit must be involved from the beginning. If not, the project scope may not accurately reflect the solution necessary to meet their needs, and the project can fail.

Going back to the sales team example, if the project team does not capture stakeholder input to clarify their requirements, the sales team’s need to better track leads may be overlooked.

Consequently, the stakeholders will insist this feature be added to the project scope, and if it isn’t, the entire project can miss the mark.

In addition, maintaining stakeholder involvement throughout the project can be a challenge. At the start of a project, everyone’s excited, but that excitement wanes over time.

If stakeholders or project sponsors don’t remain involved, the project team can fail to get the necessary support when confronted by challenges, or they may be forced to make decisions without stakeholder input.

How to avoid a lack of stakeholder involvement:

Because project success relies on stakeholder engagement, use these tips to keep them involved.

  • Define project scope with stakeholders: While stakeholders should buy into the project goals and scope, they should also participate in defining the project scope in the first place. This approach increases the likelihood that stakeholder alignment on the scope unfolds smoothly.
  • Provide regular communication tailored to stakeholders: During project execution, regular updates to stakeholders are not enough. They can disengage from a project for many reasons, including other demands on their time, so you need to structure your updates in a way that makes it easy for stakeholders to stay involved. This can mean a short bullet list of highlights that can be read quickly, or reports that visually display project status so stakeholders can easily digest the info. If stakeholders want more details, schedule a weekly check-in meeting to address questions.
  • Identify the desired information: You can’t make stakeholders care about a project, but you can convey project information in a way that engages them. To do so, figure out the information that’s important to them, and keep it concise; you want to share just enough to empower stakeholders to make decisions, but not so much that they are overwhelmed. For example, they may care about tracking a handful of key data points or understanding progress on specific deliverables.

Failure to manage project scope

Even if you’ve established a clear project scope, it’s possible for that scope to get out of hand. This happens for many reasons. Some scope creep examples include:

  • New feature requests can crop up in the midst of a project, either from employees or customers. Both may pressure the project team to include their requests or risk losing business.
  • Team members on the project may see a need for additions to the scope as they come across problems.
  • The project manager responsible for managing the scope can become fatigued by trying to maintain the scope as originally defined. They might feel like the bad guy, always saying "no" to valid requests, so they start to allow scope creep.
  • The CEO or other senior executive in the company may pitch their ideas about a project, not realizing the implications. Because the suggestions are coming from a leader in the organization, the project team feels compelled to comply.

How to avoid mismanaging scope:

It’s challenging to handle demands coming from customers and throughout the organization. Here are some suggestions to help manage project scope in a fair and balanced way.

  • Implement a process for scope changes: A change to project scope can be valid. For example, competitive pressures may necessitate adding a component that was not originally part of the scope. But for the team to differentiate between a priority and a less-important request to save for a subsequent project, a change control process must be in place. A change control process fairly and objectively evaluates new requests. This process might require including a financial model to determine the value of the new request, or presenting the request before a pre-appointed decision-making body comprised of stakeholders and executive sponsors for the project. Whatever the process, define it at the outset, and obtain stakeholder and sponsor support for it.
  • Maintain a project backlog: Since a project team can’t accommodate all requests, non-essential ones should be added to a list, called a backlog, to be addressed in a future project. This approach not only allows those asking for additions to feel heard, it also ensures key items that cannot be included in the current project be undertaken later with the proper scope and resource alignment behind them.
  • Have a CEO plan: It can be difficult to prevent scope creep from the CEO or other senior executives. Be prepared for this to happen, and depending on the personalities involved, you may need to assess the project impact outside of the established change control process. Be sure to loop in stakeholders and sponsors to help support you. If your analysis suggests your team will miss deadlines, or that costs will rise, bring this to the attention of the executives as well as stakeholders and sponsors so everyone can agree on a decision.

Lengthy projects

The longer a project takes, the greater the opportunity for scope creep. People do not want to wait weeks or months for their ideas to be implemented.

Longer project life cycles also expose the company to greater business risk as market conditions or the competitive landscape change. These changes may suddenly require wholesale revisions in project scope, which can lead to a frustrated team and wasted time and money.

How to avoid lengthy projects:

Here are some approaches to address long project schedules based on the nature of the project.

  • Break up long projects: As part of your project planning, take a look at how long a project will take. Ideally, any project requiring longer than one to three months to complete should be broken up into smaller projects with separate project management plans for each. Examine the project scope to break down its deliverables into logical chunks. Next, prioritize the components most urgent to the business. You’ll find adopting this approach is more appealing to business teams and customers because they’ll start to see project results sooner.
  • Consider trade-offs: Sometimes, it’s not possible to shorten a project or break it up into smaller chunks. For example, constructing an office building is one long project. Instead, though, you can evaluate trade-offs. For instance, consider hiring more staff to complete the project in a shorter time period. The new employees will increase the project’s costs, but that may be offset by the benefit of completing the project sooner.

Gold-plating

Project teams want to do a good job. This can manifest as a desire to add deliverables beyond the project scope to please stakeholders or customers. This is called gold-plating.

The problem is, these additions are often unnecessary to the point of diminishing returns. Since the extra deliverables were never evaluated to determine if they add value, this gold-plating behavior often ends up wasting time and effort.

How to avoid gold-plating:

Curtailing gold-plating is not easy because team members can engage in this behavior without the project manager’s knowledge. Here are some tips to help.

  • Teach the team the rules: Let the team know that adding features without going through the formal change control process can lead to lost profits and other business costs, like unhappy customers due to project delays. This sets the expectation that gold-plating is not good.
  • Define clear lines of communication: Gold-plating increases when team members are communicating directly with customers or people in the company who pitch them new project ideas. To combat this, set up clear lines of communication at the outset. For example, define a policy that all new requests should be funneled to the project manager or the person responsible for the change control process.
  • Monitor project progress closely: A project manager can uncover tasks that might be gold-plating by closely monitoring work on the project. For instance, if a particular task estimated for completion in two days is taking much longer, dig into why. Is it because an issue cropped up, or is it because an employee is increasing the scope of their work because they think it adds value? The latter is gold-plating.

The best project management software to avoid scope creep

An excellent method of avoiding scope creep is to use project management software. These tools can help you manage scope and keep your projects on track.

1. monday.com

A well-rounded project management solution, monday.com offers many of the features necessary to successfully manage projects to conclusion. It covers the basics, such as creating, assigning, and tracking tasks, in an interface that makes it easy to chart project progress.

This allows you to quickly identify if scope creep is encroaching on your timelines. Moreover, monday.com offers templates for a wide range of project types to streamline project creation.

monday.com's board system showing information about individual tickets in a colorful spreadsheet look. Includes columns of information such as lead status, sales reps, timeline, etc.

Track project tasks on monday.com’s clean interface, where key info is readily visible.

The features offered by monday.com make it easy to start and stay on top of your projects. Tools such as workload capacity by team member allow project managers to spot signs of scope creep.

If capacity suddenly maxes out for an employee, it could be a sign of gold-plating. Monday.com’s flexibility and depth of features make it one of the best project management software solutions available.

2. Scoro

Scoro is another highly-rated project management solution. Its feature set is comprehensive, including several budgeting capabilities such as invoicing and the ability to track time spent by team members. The latter allows team members to assign billable hours to a client, which is a deterrent to scope creep.

Another great feature is Scoro’s ability to prioritize tasks. The tasks related to project scope can be labeled high priority, enabling the team to stay focused on key items, not on tasks that lead to scope creep.

Scoro’s dashboard is packed with information. In this one location, the software makes it easy to closely monitor project progress so you can quickly identify and address scope creep.

Scoro project management software main dashboard with metrics for hours worked and how they were spent, all displayed with various graphs and charts.

Scoro’s dashboard houses a ton of useful information to keep projects on track.

Its plethora of reports also simplify the process of keeping stakeholders updated on project status, and they enable you to deliver the data most pertinent to each of them.

3. Asana

Asana enhances a team’s ability to communicate and collaborate as well as partner closely with managers, which allows project managers to closely watch the project to identify and stop scope creep.

Also, Asana’s Progress View feature enables team members to stay on top of project changes by delivering updates through software notifications. This helps catch scope creep issues quickly.

Via Asana’s Workload tool, you can easily see if a team member is overworked (or underutilized). If an employee had a reasonable workload last week and is suddenly overworked this week, it could be that extra work is made up of tasks related to scope creep.

Asana screen with line graph to represent workload of employees.

Easily identify overwhelmed or underworked team members with Asana’s Workload tool.

Final advice about managing scope creep

One of the challenges with scope creep is that it’s often introduced by those you or your project team want to help the most. It could be your customers or co-workers who always treat you warmly. You want to help these people succeed, so you are more likely to accommodate scope creep from them.

This is why a change control process is your ally. As much as you’d like to help, it’s best for the success of the project for everyone to submit their requests through the change control process and allow a more objective approach to determine which scope changes make sense for the project and the business.

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