The excitement of a new project can feel incredible at first. Filled with a great deal of energy, you rush into your work headfirst, thrilled by the idea of tackling every task and reaching your ambitious goals. But the longer you work on it, the more the project meanders. Coworkers add new features. Managers insist on new performance specs. Clients add additional KPIs. Team members start missing deadlines, and frustrations slowly mount. Before long, you realize that your beloved project has become a victim of scope creep.
No matter the type of organization, scope creep can happen to anyone. It afflicts new employees and seasoned workers alike. Scope creep creates problems in a way that’s both significant and subtle. It can lead to skyrocketing costs and inferior products by the end, all of it resulting in project failure. With this in mind, project managers and the project team need to become aware of how to solve potential issues before they grow.
In this article, learn what scope creep is, why it’s so damaging, the leading causes of scope creep, and how to handle it.
What is Scope Creep?
Scope creep occurs when the features, requirements, deliverables, and project scope multiply, going beyond what a project manager established at the start. This often happens without much thought given to the project budget or what it means for project management. As the name suggests, scope creep can happen slowly, with new additions arising until the project spirals out of control. Scope creep can also come from multiple directions, such as orders from top executives to requests made from those working directly on the project.
How Scope Creep Harms Businesses
Project scope creep leads to significant detrimental effects, which can derail projects and frustrate workers. While leaders usually try to do their best to avoid or mitigate these effects, the subtle nature of scope creep can make it hard to detect. Here are just a few of the damaging effects scope creep can cause.
- Missed Deadlines: Added features means employees need to work harder for longer hours to get things done. This can easily lead to missing important milestones and deadlines.
- Loss of Purpose: The more you add to a project, the more likely it is that the project will stray from its original intent. The true purpose of the project can then become hidden among the flood of new additions.
- Rising Costs: Every project should have a set budget that teams stick to. In instances of scope creep, regular costs can balloon, leading to projects going significantly over budget.
- Lower Morale: Teams love to have a clear vision when tackling a new project. Scope creep can blur that vision and diminish a project to just a series of tasks. This can lower morale for the team, causing annoyance and frustration. It may even lead to work burnout.
Examples of Scope Creep
To better identify scope creep, it can be helpful to look at some real-world examples. A concrete and immensely costly instance of scope creep is the development of the baggage handling system during the construction of the new Denver International Airport. The idea was to put an automated baggage system using the latest technology. Due to poor communication and scope creep, the project eventually went over budget, missing important deadlines. Some of the change requests included thousands of new design alterations. Project stakeholders had little say in what the changes were. Thanks to these changes, the airport opened 16 months after the original schedule. On top of that, expenses grew, costing Denver over one million dollars every day during the delay. The city eventually scrapped the system in 2005 after several years of operation due to high management costs.
Another good example is the expansion and renovation of the Kitchener, Ontario, main library. While the work initially had a deadline of March 2013, the library didn’t open until April 2014. Scope creep was the main culprit for such a significant delay as the city and architects continued to add new design changes to the plan. The project’s general contractor later sued for seven million dollars in damages thanks to these costly delays.
Causes of Scope Creep
A leader can’t tackle scope creep if they don’t know what causes it. For this reason, those in leadership roles must understand why it happens in the first place. As mentioned before, it can sometimes be challenging to identify scope creep early on, but awareness of the causes makes managing it that much easier. The following are some of the most common causes of scope creep.
- No Project Scope Statement: Every project should include a project scope statement that clearly outlines the project’s overall scope and vision. Projects without this statement risk taking an “anything goes” approach which can easily introduce feature creep.
- Vague Statements of Work: The statement of work for a project can sometimes be vague, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Without clear instructions, projects can expand and include unimportant items.
- Undocumented Agreements: Often during a project, managers and clients will recommend changes and the addition of new features. Often these conversations and agreements go undocumented, creating more chances for miscommunication.
- Unreasonable Timeframes: Every project should have deadlines, but some projects have unreasonable timeframes for what leaders want accomplished.
- Poor Communication: At the same time, managers, leaders, and team members may suffer from poor communication. This might include a failure to raise issues and concerns when needed. When poor communication happens, problems grow and projects can get out of hand.
How to Avoid and Handle Scope Creep
1. Have a Clear Mission and Vision
Every project should have a specific goal in mind. That goal should align perfectly with the mission and vision of the company. Plans without clear goals are the ones that fall prey to additional features. It’s like going on a road trip without a map or GPS in hand. Think of how much more you would spend on gas, food, and other necessities without the added guidance of a map. That’s not to mention the likelihood that you will reach your destination at a much later date than if you had planned ahead. With a clear mission and vision, you can take on a project without fear of it going haywire.
Learn more about writing an inspiring mission statement.
2. Find the Source of the Changes
Throughout a project, changes will still happen from time to time despite your best efforts. Managing scope creep means figuring out where those changes are coming from. Is additional work originating from suggestions from the top-level brass? Have team members put in new features on their own without telling anyone? Is poor communication exacerbating problems with the project specs and contributing to changes? If you can narrow down the source of the changes, you can eliminate the issues you’re experiencing.
Get more help with problem solving by reading this article.
3. Keep an Eye on Milestones and Deadlines
Deadlines and milestones exist for a reason. If you’re trying to avoid scope creep, sticking to these parameters will help. Pay close attention to the milestones you have set for your project. If it looks like you won’t hit them at the designated time, look at what has caused the delay. Monitor your progress toward your deadline in detail. Any discrepancies could be an indication that unnecessarily added features are creeping into the project. They often act as early warning signs that something is wrong. Take the time to address the problems, then set new milestones if needed. At the same time, be sure to notify managers and supervisors when changing deadlines.
4. Encourage Transparency
You can manage scope creep during the project by encouraging everyone to be transparent in all their actions and communications. This prevents undue work from getting added to a project. Part of transparency means recording your interactions and avoiding poor communication practices, such as not notifying others of concerns. Always encourage an open door policy where people can voice their opinions without fear of retaliation or judgment. Additionally, show that you value their opinions and seriously consider any suggestions. Remember, transparent teams check in with each other and keep communication lines open.
5. Always Compare Work With Scope
Scope creep happens when workers look beyond the original scope, losing focus in the process. Make sure you constantly check your scope to avoid falling into that trap. Every bit of work you do during a project should align with the scope of the project. Changes can happen from time to time, so if you’re thinking of adding a new feature, check the scope you established at the beginning. If it fits, it might be a worthwhile addition, provided it doesn’t add much to the budget or timeline. If it doesn’t work, your best choice of action would be to disregard any additional considerations.
6. Learn When and How to Say “No”
This might be one of the most challenging steps to follow, but it can save a world of pain in the future if you learn to do it. The simple suggestion to avoid the dangers of scope creep is to learn to say “no.” For example, if a client asks you to add irrelevant work to the project, respectfully tell them “no.” Don’t be afraid to make a compelling case as to why the team should stick to its original goals. This might look like talking about how deviating from the scope will lead to higher costs and significant delays. With these explanations, saying “no” becomes much easier, as it will be perceived as a justifiable decision.
7. Use Technology
One of the best ways to keep projects on track is through the use of the latest technology. Project management software already provides excellent ways to keep organized and ensure you’re meeting all your deadlines. With the right project management app, you can monitor the most recent progress from anywhere. At the same time, messaging platforms can facilitate communication between team members, ensuring further transparency and coordination. Don’t overlook technological solutions to project management as they can prove crucial in maintaining organization and structure.
For other organizing techniques to increase productivity, check out the usefulness of a kanban board.
8. Set the Right Priorities
As a project progresses, make sure you target the right priorities at the right time. Project management software can help in this effort, but ultimately it comes down to you. Know what you should prioritize so you can establish a firm direction. When you don’t set priorities, you risk losing direction. If a task doesn’t fit with what you have prioritized, it probably means you can skip it.
Prepare for Change
Scope creep can still happen despite your best efforts, but you should always be looking to minimize it. Keep in mind that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, too many changes that alter the purpose of a project only hurt businesses that need to make their goals a reality. If you understand the causes and follow the tips outlined above, you’ll place yourself in an excellent position to avoid scope creep and limit its damage. This will lead to a project that progresses smoothly and helps the company reach its top objectives, which allows for organizational growth and increased profitability.
Want more information on creating strong goals that define the scope of your work? Check out this article next: