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Scope creep: What it is and how to avoid it

Last updated

12 December 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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If you’ve ever worked with a client on a project, spearheaded a project of your own, or were the client hiring others for project work, you’ve likely encountered scope creep.

Perhaps you didn’t realize there was a term for this concept, or you indirectly contributed to scope creep yourself.

So, what is scope creep, and what are its potential implications in project-related endeavors? The concept can be more complex than many people realize. Learning to identify and define scope creep will help you take the necessary steps to avoid it.

What is project scope?

Before defining scope creep, it’s important to understand what a project’s scope entails. When you, your team, or your clients talk about scope, the following project-related details typically apply:

  • The deliverables your project intends to produce

  • The work needed to facilitate the project

  • The people, partners, and contractors involved in the project

  • The estimated timeline for each phase and the project’s completion

  • The estimated budget requirements for each phase and the overall total

Developing the scope of work for any project usually begins with the goal. From there, you’ll outline the following statement of work (SOW) parameters:

  1. Introduction: defining the need for the partnership and the project

  2. Project overview and core objectives

  3. Scope of work: defining what you will and won’t do

  4. Tasks and responsibilities

  5. Project timeline and schedules

  6. Project management strategies

  7. Adoption plans

As you create these project roadmaps, you’ll use metrics and available data to establish benchmarks, realistic timelines, and budgets needed to facilitate the work. After this itemized scope has been agreed upon, in most scenarios, this signals that work can begin.

What is scope creep?

Even if you think you have thoroughly defined your scope of work, scenarios arise that bring changes, new opinions, and challenges. Scope creep involves the unplanned addition of expectations and provisions to a predetermined scope of work. These add-ons often include tasks, deliverables, expenses, or time.

Changes and challenges are expected with any type of project. However, when those changes are accepted without a plan or proper adjustment to the original scope, it becomes scope creep.

What’s the difference between scope creep and gold plating?‎

Scope creep typically involves changes at the client or stakeholder level that ultimately expand the scope of work. Meanwhile, gold plating often refers to the team providing extras or added value components to exceed expectations without client approval and without shifting the original scope of work.

In simpler terms:

  • Scope creep: altering the scope of the project based on new features or deviations provided by the client.

  • Gold plating: adding more features or deliverables with the aim of impressing the client and providing a great service. The original scope remains the same.

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Real-world scope creep examples

As a business or project leader, you might be surprised by just how easily scope creep can “creep” into your efforts.

Here are some real-world examples of scope creep at many levels of project-related engagements and management:

Scope creep in software development

Software development is an industry that commonly requires project-based work, so scope creep can often affect these projects.

For example, imagine a company hires a software developer to build and develop a new customer-facing app to help customers process orders online and from their mobile devices. The client outlines the core objectives during project discussions.

The team begins app development, but the client later communicates that the app also needs a scheduling feature that allows customers to select a day and time delivery window. The development team is asked to deviate from the original scope of work to add another layer of time, development, and budgeting to the project. Because the change request is made on the fly without a plan to amend the original scope, the request can be considered scope creep.

Scope creep in the restaurant industry

A diner gives his order to the waiter. He says: “I’d like my steak cooked medium and I’d like ranch dressing on my side salad.” The waiter takes the order to the kitchen, where chefs immediately begin preparing the meal.

Scope creep comes into play when the diner waves down the server and says, “I’ve changed my mind. I’d now like my steak cooked medium rare and blue cheese dressing for the salad.”

Because the cooks have already started preparing the meal, the change means preparing a new steak and assembling a new salad. This wastes time and food resources.

Scope creep in commercial construction

Forbes shared examples of major construction projects that experienced headaches and delays because of scope creep.

The “Big Dig”

The “Big Dig” in Boston is the largest highway construction project in the US. Planning kicked off in 1982, and the plan was to complete the project by 1998. The original cost estimate was $2.65 billion.

Scope creep took over because designers and stakeholders were consulted separately, leading to conflicting input. Moreover, there were multiple team leads, which led to disparate and sometimes contradictory scope change requests. The highway was completed nine years beyond schedule and ultimately cost $14.8 billion.

Denver International Airport

Denver’s International Airport was another construction project in the 90s that went awry because of scope creep. This project was a progressive development effort to create a fully automated baggage handling system.

Project leads ignored stakeholders with expertise and warnings that the project was too ambitious to accomplish, and the collective efforts weren’t guided by detailed project requirements. As a result, the project ran 16 months past its planned finish date, racked up more than 2,000 design changes, and was $569 million over budget. Even worse, DIA had to fall back on its manual baggage system, abandoning the original automated designs.

7 common causes of scope creep

Any project has layers of decision-making. Most stakeholders and executives prefer not to be included in small decisions, trusting the team. Others, however, insist on routine involvement.

Changes can happen in either scenario, leading to scope creep. But it’s usually the non-defined change control process that contributes to scope creep.

The factors below tend to invite scope creep and are critical to recognize so that you can stop them from invading your projects.

1. Failure to commit to decisions

In an effort to get a project started quickly, clients give the teams the green light without really committing to the original scope of work. This leads to frequent changes, shifting of ideas, and differing priorities. All of these behaviors invite scope creep and fundamental changes to the original scope of work.

2. The original scope of work is unclear

Projects can be complex, with layers of tasks and deliverables requiring various partners and team members. When the client or the project team doesn’t have a complete understanding of the work’s scope, it leaves gray areas for questioning and scope creep changes. Vague or ambiguous scopes of work will almost always lead to scope creep.

3. Executives having unmanaged access to the project

Once the executives agree to the scope of work, they may still want to be involved in the project’s decision-making and execution. But too much involvement, especially unmanaged or unchecked, will allow the executives to question and request changes directly to the team. These changes could be outside of the original scope of work.

4. Lack of executive involvement

A stakeholder who is not involved can be just as detrimental to the project as one who is overly involved. If the team makes critical decisions without foresight or approval and fails to communicate these decisions, they may get deep into the project without executive alignment. This can lead to re-works or additional work beyond the original scope, costing time and money.

5. Starting a project before fleshing out the analysis

Projects and business can be fast-paced, leading team members and stakeholders to rush through meetings and discussions. However, if you begin a project prematurely and without carefully reviewing metrics and data, you can face scope creep challenges further into the work.

Cost–benefit analysis, return on investment (ROI) analysis, and timeline estimates are crucial to establishing the original scope of work.

6. Clients insisting on “bang for their buck”

Depending on the nature of your project, hefty investment might be involved. Clients and stakeholders will often try to ask for more in an attempt to get more “bang for their buck.”

Alternatively, project teams may try to over-deliver to please the client by adding unnecessary features not included in the original scope, resulting in gold plating. Both scenarios can lead to scope creep setbacks.

7. Overly positive or optimistic estimates

Another common cause of scope creep involves being overeager to start a project with an overoptimistic attitude.

Jumping into a project with overconfident estimates can lead to promising too much. This kind of optimism may not reflect what the team can actually deliver. As the project progresses, the team might realize that more effort, time, or resources are needed to complete it, resulting in scope creep.

How to avoid scope creep

When scope creep has the potential to damage and disrupt your project, you’ll want to take steps to avoid negative outcomes. Learn to recognize scope creep and acknowledge its prevalence so you can effectively avoid or minimize it in all your projects.

  • Clearly define your scope of work from the outset. When you create transparent definitions for stakeholders and teams, you reduce the risk of misinterpretation.

  • Involve the whole team during the estimation process. Collectively setting goals and establishing benchmarks ensures everyone can align on common objectives to facilitate the project.

  • Create a dedicated change order process. Inform your stakeholders and teams that suggestions and changes must all flow through a dedicated change order process that adjusts the project’s scope with each new request.

  • Build out contingency plans. Flexibility and anticipating changes as the project progresses are essential for preventing scope creep.

  • Be proactive about potential challenges and issues. Know there will be project challenges, and create plans to address them with stakeholders and teams before you begin.

  • Engage stakeholders and team members early and often to obtain feedback. As you begin your project, involve clients and teams in early feedback and keep them engaged throughout the project.

  • Use insightful questions to help prioritize client requests. Use questionnaires to help you better understand the client’s priorities with the project. Don’t assume which project features are more important.

  • Share status and project reports throughout the project execution. Create assessment reporting from the beginning so you can get feedback with each completed project phase, allowing you to stay ahead of delays and setbacks.

How to fix scope creep

Scope creep, when recognized early, can be reduced or eliminated. If you can’t avoid scope creep and find it affecting your project, consider the following remedies:

  • Stop what you’re doing and redefine the scope of work with teams and stakeholders.

  • Create a change management process for your project managers and clients to follow.

  • Reassess your analytics to re-prioritize project requirements.

  • Place an emphasis on the benefits already provided along with the intended advantages for each phase of the project.

  • Re-establish core channels of communication for updates and project status reporting.

  • Deconstruct projects into manageable micro-projects, demonstrating progress in realistic phases.

If your project has advanced to the point where scope creep changes are already adding time, money, and resources, your best approach might be to re-create a project scope with the new requirements. This will acknowledge the potentially increased time and budget required.

FAQs

What is the core difference between scope creep and scope changes?

Scope creep is also recognized as project creep, requirement creep, or even feature creep. All refer to the concept of deviating from the original scope of work for a project beyond what was originally agreed upon by the client or stakeholders.

Scope change, on the other hand, is the planned method for adjusting the scope using defined processes and parameters.

How is scope creep measured?

Use metrics like cost variances, schedule changes, quality data, and required resources to help you determine if your project changes fall outside of the original scope of work. If you planned to deliver one feature and now you are working on five features without a plan for adjusting timelines, materials, and budget, you’re experiencing scope creep.

Does scope creep have any benefits?

Scope creep can certainly get out of hand, causing significant delays and lost revenue. However, a healthy amount of scope creep in small increments can enable your project to evolve into its best version.

The farther along you get in the project, the more you have learned about it. This equips you to make better decisions on upcoming components. It also allows for project management agility.

What are the causes of scope creep?

Scope creep can be introduced into projects from several sources, including the following:

  • No transparency or common understanding of the project scope

  • Too many stakeholders or decision-makers

  • Poor feature prioritization

  • Poor communication

  • Ineffective change control process

  • New requests not being properly addressed

  • Poor estimation

Ensuring a clear scope, communication outlets, and a defined change process helps prevent these sources from being introduced in your projects.

What are the effects of scope creep?

Scope creep can greatly impact the outcome of your project. If not properly managed and mitigated, it can have the following effects:

  • Project delays

  • Deadline changes

  • Spending over budget

  • Poor client satisfaction

  • Frustrated team members and stakeholders

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