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Scope Creep in Project Management: How to Recognize and Prevent It

Preventing scope creep is vital to ensuring the success of your projects. Learn what scope creep is and how to combat it with this guide.

One of the most important elements of any successful project is a clear definition and understanding of its scope. It's something that's agreed upon by all key stakeholders at the beginning of a project and is used as a roadmap for what must be done moving forward and by when.

Sometimes, that plan will need to be adjusted. A certain degree of flexibility will always be necessary, especially to account for elements beyond a project manager's control.

However, scope creep occurs when a stakeholder asks for more deliverables that go above and beyond what was already decided upon. This is more than just a "mild inconvenience." If left unchecked, it can cause a wide range of issues that may hinder your company's growth.

What is scope creep?

Simply put, scope creep occurs when project stakeholders add more deliverables beyond what was initially discussed, push back deadlines, or both. Not only can this cause significant delays to a project and increase costs, but it can also harm your team's morale.

Why does scope creep happen?

Scope creep occurs for a wide range of different reasons. Below are a few of the most common ones project managers often face.

You don't have a project scope

If everyone doesn't understand and agree on a project's scope before work begins, there's no way for all key stakeholders to align toward those goals. As a result, essential team members can't communicate what must be done, and scope creep project management issues become a matter of "when" not "if."

Vague or unrealistic goals

When goals are clear, project team members can easily see which tasks are essential and which can be moved further down the timeline. They know what they need to focus on for maximum productivity. If goals are vague (or outright unrealistic), it becomes hard to know what to prioritize. This can also lead to missed deadlines and poor work quality.

Communication gaps

Another reason scope creep occurs is because essential information isn't communicated effectively. This is one of the reasons why project management software is often so critical—it helps ensure that documents are being distributed effectively and that no data silos exist.

Everything must be documented and disseminated to guarantee everyone remains on the same page. Early communication prevents change requests that could derail the entire enterprise.

Too much input from stakeholders

There must be a clear project owner to avoid scope creep issues. In most cases, this will be the project manager. While feedback from stakeholders is essential, getting too much input often leads to frequent modifications. This is one of those situations where the old saying about too many cooks being in the kitchen does apply.

Poor change control process

When an important element of the project is changed (and scope is a part of that), there must be a process in place for visibility. Change requests should be formally submitted, reviewed by project stakeholders, and accepted or denied. If changes occur without this level of communication or context, you'll likely start missing deadlines or running over budget, but you won't be sure why. As such, you can't fix the problem.

Last-minute feedback and requests

What may seem like a small change submitted at the last minute by a customer may require a major overhauling and significant work. To avoid this, try to get regular customer reviews and feedback as often as possible.

How to recognize scope creep

Often, project scope creep doesn't occur all at once. Little warning signs pop up along the project timeline and things slowly worsen. Because of that, you'll want to recognize those signs immediately so that you can stop a small problem before it becomes much more extensive.

For example, say you're working on an agreed-upon website proposal, but a team leader continues to ask for deadline extensions. They want to add more functionality to the finished product, but there's no clear plan for how that will happen or why it's so important. The new features are vague to the point where they're difficult to keep track of, leading to confusion from Scrum teams and scope creep.

Another clear sign of scope creep is a scenario where a project manager may be suddenly asked to accomplish the same amount of work with fewer resources than was agreed upon. Maybe circumstances changed beyond their control and the budget has been reduced, but if the project scope hasn't been decreased along with it, it will lead to a constant struggle to stay afloat. The work may eventually suffer and deadlines could be regularly missed.

Why is scope creep an issue?

One of the most important things to understand about scope creep is that it almost immediately causes a domino effect. From the point of view of project managers, it typically leads to missed delivery dates, guaranteeing that you and your team will exceed the budget.

Sudden alterations to the project's scope could also lead to poor quality, as people are now being asked to do more with less when that might not be possible. This can lead to a negative experience for project stakeholders and clients, even though the situation could've been avoided had the proper precautions been taken.

Ways to prevent scope creep

Project managers need to understand what scope creep is and take actionable steps to help manage it as much as possible. You can do this in a few different ways depending on the project timeline. This includes:

Define the scope of your project

Before work begins, project managers and stakeholders must get together and answer a few key questions.

  • What exactly are you trying to accomplish?
  • What does this project need to solve?
  • How are you going to execute that vision?
  • What metrics will be used to measure success?

One key element of the scope creep definition is uncertainty, so answering these questions through a scope statement before work begins can help eliminate that entirely.

Prioritize important tasks

Adding 1 or 2 small tasks to the project timeline may seem reasonable, but when this happens, the volume of work adds up, taking away people's attention from more important matters. Make sure that all critical tasks are prioritized, and if there's time, add projects that aren't a part of the original scope statement.

It's also best practice to document requirements and changes. A project manager must always have real-time visibility into what work is accomplished by who and why. Once all project requirements are understood, the team should stick to the established work breakdown structure. If they deviate from it, justifications need to be conveyed as to why this is happening at this particular moment.

Communicate effectively

So much of project scope creep comes down to miscommunication.

For example, if a client's expectations are skewed at the beginning of the project, you might only realize it once a significant amount of work has been completed. As you move closer to delivering a finished product, the client starts to demand changes--not necessarily because they're being picky, but because they didn't understand what was being accomplished in the first place.

Always have a communication strategy and communicate with project stakeholders and team members to ensure everyone understands what success looks like and how close (or far away) you are to it.

Know when to say "no”

One of the best ways to avoid scope creep in project management is to understand what requests and sudden changes can be accommodated and which ones can't be added to the agreed-upon project timeline. Not every request has to be met with immediate approval, especially if it runs the risk of causing significant delays or altering the project's scope in any way.

Overall, you must use a combination of the above best practices to make sure everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction at all times. Scope creep occurs to various degrees, depending on where you are on the project timeline and your stakeholder management strategy. Understanding the warning signs and leaning into a work breakdown structure that addresses the issues mentioned are great ways to ensure this is something you can handle moving forward.

Minimize scope creep for successful projects

In the end, scope creep can be an issue for any project due to an unfortunately long list of reasons. Sometimes, communication gaps exist to the point where goals and expectations are never properly conveyed. Other times, those goals are vague at best and unrealistic at worst. Regardless, this can result in major delays and hinder the quality of the work being accomplished.

By defining the scope of a project as early in the process as possible, making a proactive effort to prioritize important tasks, and communicating clearly and effectively, you can address any scope creep problems and prevent project issues from occurring moving forward.

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