How to Avoid Scope Creep Like the Plague

What is “scope creep”? This is a term often used in the world of project management. It can create huge elements of risk, it can blow schedules, and it should be avoided at all costs. So what is scope creep exactly, and how should project managers and project teams avoid it?

Scope creep is by definition “the addition of work as a result of poor or incomplete definition of project scope”. Basically scope creep can refer to either late or last minute changes to the overall project scope that a project manager allows, or poor planning or a major oversight on defining and determining the project scope from the beginning.

It’s happened to all of us: We get assigned a project, we analyze the requirements, draft specifications and put together a statement of work, select vendors or suppliers, and production begins. Then, the customer contacts you with a change or addition to the original scope, or a scope that doesn’t resemble the original at all! This happens more often than not. So what do you do? Do you revise the schedule, the specifications, and redraft the SOW all over again and start over from scratch? Or do you tell the customer ‘no’? Neither of these sound like good options. So what does a project manager do?

Project managers must start a new project and begin defining what the plan is right away. In addition to defining specifications and drafting an overall project plan, the next thing a project manager should do is set a commitment to a certain baseline of specifications. This may be easier said than done, but it’s important for a project manager to explain to a customer the risks and impacts changing or deferring from the original project scope can have on the overall project deliverables and outcome.

Usually customers, when armed with this information up front, are receptive and understanding of this. However, we all know that there are those that just don’t. So this goes back to the question above: Do you tell the customer ‘no’? Of course, we don’t want to flat out tell the customer ‘no’, however, perhaps a compromise can be formed between the two parties.

We’ve all dealt with changes in project scope before. Some are minimal changes, requiring adding a couple days to a couple weeks onto the schedule, or some maybe adding an extra QA step or two. On the other hand, some are more complex, no doubt adding on weeks or sometimes even months onto a schedule, which then the budget needs to be factored in. It’s important that a project manager communicate what risks and impacts a change can have on the overall outcome of a project. You can try to be accommodating with the customer, but be realistic. It may be necessary to discuss scheduling changes, deadline changes, or even project price changes. You can also try to meet them halfway and make some of the changes they want, which may only impact the budget and schedule minimally, and perhaps consider more complex changes during a revision down the road, if this is an option within your industry, of course.

All in all, scope creep should be avoided at all costs…literally. Scope creep can get way out of control if a project manager doesn’t put the brakes on early on in the project. Again, in gathering customer requirements, it’s also important for project managers to establish boundaries and agree on commitments as far as what changes can or will be made later in the project life cycle.

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