Project Management

Overcoming Scope Creep: A Project Manager’s Guide

Dovile Miseviciute ·

Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space. 2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood. 2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

scope creep

Project managers are well-versed in navigating the different pieces of the project puzzle, catering to the varying demands of teams and stakeholders. But more often than not, things don’t go as planned. When this happens, the dreaded scope creep comes that negatively impacts the execution of any project.

Sudden changes and client requests in a project can’t be eliminated. What you can do as a project manager is to minimize the impact of scope creep. This guide explains scope creep and how you can better manage it for your current and future projects.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep, also sometimes called requirement creep or feature creep, refers to the gradual and uncontrolled increase in a project’s scope after the initial plan has been set.

In a Project Management Institute study, it was found that half of all projects undertaken suffer from scope creep, and only 57% of them finished within budget. To better understand scope creep, we need to define project scope. 

In project management, the scope sets the boundaries of a project. It clarifies exactly what the project aims to achieve, what will be delivered, and the resources required.  It’s essentially a roadmap that keeps everyone on the same page about the project’s goals and limitations.

Having a well-defined scope means everyone involved in the project, from the team members to the stakeholders, has a clear understanding of what the project is and what it is not. Project managers can effectively monitor progress and identify any deviations from the plan early on. This allows for timely course correction to keep the project on track.

Scope creep happens when the agreed-upon scope changes and gradually increases, leading to more deliverables and unclear objectives. Imagine you’re building a house with a set number of floors and rooms. Scope creep is suddenly adding new features such as a basement, attic, or balcony that were not included in the original plan. 

How does scope creep manifest in projects?

Scope creep can occur in any project where the initial plan gradually expands without proper controls. Here are some scope creep examples:

1. Software Development

Creating an app involves several tasks and to-do lists. As your team checks off every item, your client may request additional features like task prioritization, categorization, and progress tracking. These features add complexity and require more time and resources. The development now requires more tasks, delaying the launch and potentially exceeding the budget.

2. Construction

Let’s say you’re in charge of a renovation project that starts with a plan to update the kitchen. However, during demolition, the contractor discovers unexpected structural issues. This means more work and potentially altering the timeline and budget. Your client might also decide to expand the scope by adding a breakfast nook or revamping the bathroom while construction is underway.

3. Marketing Campaign

A social media marketing campaign is planned to promote a school’s online executive MBA programs. After the initial campaign launch, the marketing team requests additional video content to involve more alumni success stories. These unplanned elements require extra resources and might push the campaign budget beyond its initial allocation.

4. Event Planning

A conference is planned with a specific number of speakers and attendees. As excitement builds, the organizers decide to invite an additional keynote speaker or add new workshops, leading to logistical challenges, venue capacity concerns, and potential cost increases.

How does scope creep impact projects?

The impact of scope creep in projects shouldn’t be underestimated. Simple changes can affect teams as well as your budget. Some of the consequences of scope creep are the following:

  • Project Delays: Adding new features or functionalities naturally extends the time needed to complete the project. Deadlines get pushed back, and stakeholders who were expecting a certain completion date may become frustrated.
  • Budget Overruns: The additional features or deliverables that come with scope creep often require more resources, like manpower, materials, or software licenses. This can quickly push the project over budget. In some cases, project sponsors may be unwilling to allocate more funds, forcing the project team to cut corners or scale back on quality to stay within the original budget.
  • Decreased Quality: In trying to accommodate the changes in the project, some elements may be compromised. Team members may rush their work due to tight deadlines. This can lead to a decline in the quality of the final product or service. 
  • Reduced Team Morale:  A project that keeps expanding beyond its initial scope can quickly become overwhelming for the team. Team members may feel constantly pressured and stressed as they struggle to keep up with the growing workload. This can lead to burnout, decreased motivation, and ultimately, higher turnover.
  • Customer Dissatisfaction:  If the project’s scope changes significantly from what was originally agreed upon, it can lead to unhappy customers. They may not be getting the product or service they envisioned, and the project delays and potential quality issues can further erode their satisfaction.
  • Project Failure:  In extreme cases, uncontrolled scope creep can lead to project failure.  If the project budget is depleted, deadlines are missed by a significant margin, or the quality of the deliverables is severely compromised, the project may have to be abandoned altogether.

Five Steps to Avoid Scope Creep

According to a Project Management Institute report, low levels of scope creep are a major indicator of a project’s success. While you can’t avoid change, you can be prepared to tackle scope creep in your projects:

1. Clearly define the project scope

Every project starts with defining its scope, but it pays to be more detailed. Take the time to meticulously outline the project’s goals, deliverables, and limitations in a project scope document. You can find a good project resource management platform that can visualize the needed tasks and deadlines. Get everyone on board by having all stakeholders agree to this document.

Online gantt chart maker
Gantt view in Teamhood

2. Manage expectations

Your client and stakeholders may have different viewpoints on the project’s objectives and goals. However, everyone must understand the limitations of the project to avoid disappointments and frustrations. Proactively communicate the project scope to everyone involved and keep them informed about any potential changes.

3. Implement a change control process

Requests or changes in a project should not be done on a whim. Establish a formal process for requesting changes that involves careful evaluation of its impact on the timeline and the team. This process will also ensure that everyone involved has a say in approving every change.

4. Talk about the impact of the change

Evaluating whether or not a project scope needs to be changed must be transparent, weighing all the pros and cons. A new feature may enhance your app, but its development might significantly increase the project’s budget. It’s ok to say no, and your client may understand it better once you’ve clearly explained the negative impact of this change.

5. Regularly monitor and communicate

Project monitoring is one of the many responsibilities of a project manager, but with the awareness of scope creep, you can be more vigilant. Ensure that communication lines are always open between the team and stakeholders, keeping everyone on the same page. Utilize tools such as task management tools to delegate tasks efficiently and monitor progress.

workload resources
Workload view in Teamhood

Best Practices in Managing Scope Creep

When scope creep occurs despite your efforts, don’t get frustrated. There are many ways you can reduce the impact of scope creep and meet client expectations:

  • Communicate scope creep promptly: If you identify potential scope creep, don’t wait to communicate it to stakeholders. The sooner everyone is aware of the issue, the sooner you can develop a plan to address it.
  • Show visibility of changes made: Keep a record of all approved changes to the project scope, including the rationale behind the change and its impact on the project. This prevents any conflicts from occurring and lessens the temptation of proposing new changes.
  • Set realistic deadlines: Don’t be afraid to push back on unrealistic deadlines or requests from stakeholders. Explain the impact that these changes can have on the project and work collaboratively to find solutions.
  • Empower everyone involved: Encourage every member involved in the project to share their opinions and express any concerns. This fosters a collaborative environment where team members feel valued and have ownership of their tasks in the project.

Manage the Risk of Scope Creep for Your Project’s Success

It’s unrealistic to expect that everything in your project will happen as planned. Scope creep can’t be completely avoided, and it can catch you unawares when you lose sight of your project’s objectives.

A good project manager helps the team and stakeholders to focus on the bigger picture and avoid getting hung up on the minute details. Managing scope creep means ensuring every change won’t derail your project and keep it running smoothly toward the finish line.

If you are looking for a good solution to help manage your project through issues such as scope creep, check out this list of the best project management software.

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