The Ultimate Guide to Scope Creep [Updated for 2022]

what is scope creep and how to avoid it

Do you have struggles around scope creep? Every project manager does.

No wonder, as scope creep is one of the primary causes of project failure. Countless project managers are affected by scope creep every year, too late to realize there are missing parts in their project equation.

In fact, Forecast's survey has shown that 71% of all tasks are created after the project start date!

But to every problem, there’s a solution. In this short guide, we’ll show you a few simple steps on how to prevent and control scope creep. 

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What is scope creep?

Let’s start with the basics. Scope creep, by definition, is nothing more than the new unexpected requirements brought to the table by stakeholders after all the sides have agreed on a certain project scope.

PMBOK defines scope creep as the phenomenon of “adding features and functionality to the project scope without taking into account the effects it can have on time, costs, and resources.” In other words, scope creep is extra work that you did not initially plan to do, and work that is not reflected or included in the agreed scope of the project. 

As mentioned by Mike Clayton, a leading expert in the domain of project management, scope creep may start with only three words “Could you just…?”, and have a dramatic impact on the project in the end. It’s because what occurs during scope creep are changes to the project that are not within the approved budget or time.

This usually can't just be taken lightly. Having a high level of scope creep can significantly increase the risk of the project going off-track, over budget, or often over time. This puts stress on yourself, your fellow colleagues, and the business that is paying your bills.

So when the project is growing in scale with brand new requests coming in, but resources aren’t, you might be experiencing the first signs of scope creep. This is when your project is slowly getting out of control.

An extreme example of scope creep would be a bridge across the river that turns up to be a boat in the end. But usually, little things just snowball into something veering from the original client expectations. 


Top causes of scope creep in project management

Common causes for scope creep can include poor communications, sparsely defined requirements, missing documentation, lack of control over changes, and long projects, among other things. Let's take a look at each.

1. Poor communications

When the original time and budget estimates are not met, in most cases, something must have gone wrong on your communication fronts. There are two common scenarios:

  1. Your team has been approached by the client and asked to make a ‘few’ changes to the scope without you knowing it. 
  2. You’ve failed to communicate project requirements to the team and thus let the project slide in the unknown direction. 

Read on how to fix these later in the article. 

2. Sparsely defined requirements

In addition to inconsistent communications, scope creep is generally a direct result of poorly defined requirements. The unclear scope from the beginning can’t lead to a meaningful result. Often this happens when the team is denied to take the time needed to collect and define detailed requirements. Everyone ends up with a fuzzy understanding of the project and their own hidden agenda of what needs to be done. 

3. Missing documentation

One of the reasons you may be experiencing project scope creep is the lack of a single source of truth for the teams, clients, you, and all stakeholders in general, to rely on. Lacking the statement of work and depth in the specification document, your project will turn into a center of ideas rather than clearly defined objectives. 

4. Lack of control over changes

Scope creep can also easily sneak up on you if you don't pay close attention to your project. It often begins with minor changes or feedback from your client, and then suddenly it turns into several days or weeks of extra work. Mind you, the original scope of the project did not include that additional work. Especially if you work with fixed price projects, and you did not agree to bill your client for those extra hours, it's quite frankly going to affect your bottom line; not to mention the profitability of the project. How frustrating! 

5. Long projects

Longer projects are associated with scope creep not only because accurate predictions are out of reach, but also because stakeholders have more time to refine their ideas. Couple it with constant comparisons with the competition or business changes, happening alongside the project. So the longer the project runs, the higher the chances of scope creep are. 


How to avoid scope creep

Clearly, project managers have many challenges to address when it comes to project scope creep. But there are as many solutions and prevention tactics that end the nightmare. Try to keep them in mind for your next project.


1. Make a clearly defined statement of work

To avoid those long drawn out projects, you need an adequately defined Statement of Work (SOW).

The SOW should function as a detailed building plan and roadmap of what has to be done on a project. It should be as specific as possible. A SOW should include the preparations necessary for every role working on each task within the project. This way you avoid the potential risk of the client wanting one thing, you understanding a second, and the assigned person building something else.

Mainly, if you don’t have an agreed SOW with a clear description - each link (client, designer, developer, etc.) might understand the project differently, and thus ending up with something completely different, like in this famous scope creep meme. 


We've probably all seen this scenario before. This picture perfectly exemplifies what causes scope creep and how projects quickly spin out of control. The building plan, SOW, was not correctly described by the client to the project manager at the very beginning. Further through the production timeline, it is clear how the project was not going to be the ideal result. 

In the end, the product was not anywhere close to what the client envisioned and needed in the first place. If you can't refer back to your mutually signed SOW, then those corrections could quickly turn out to be much more comprehensive. In result, it could make the project run overtime, stretch your resources, and push other projects and clients further from their completion dates. 

Make sure you understand the idea and expectations of your client. Together with your client, brainstorm the idea, define the requirements, and carefully create the SOW. Build a proposal around the SOW, and mutually sign both pieces, i.e., SOW and Proposal.

Scoping with ease


Now, with a mutually agreed SOW and Proposal, you're ready to move forward with the planning phase of the project. With the outcome in mind, you both know what's within the scope, what's out of reach, and specifically what needs to be built or created. 

Use the SOW both internally with your teams, and externally with your client to keep everybody on the same page. You can always refer back to the initial SOW whenever your client is suggesting new features or some changes. For a profitable project, you need to agree and bill your client for any extra work put forth.


2. Assume there will be change

Project scope is never set in stone. Change happens even before the ink is dry, regardless of how detailed your scope and requirements are. What you can do from the beginning is learn how to embrace the mindset of change and live with it in harmony. 

Whenever there’s the case for change, your job is to control requests for change, manage the process, and ensure there's good governance. Every change should be supported by the evidence of need, so make sure it is of value to the project. Change management processes have to be set up upfront and you probably already have these in place. But if you don’t, think and develop possible scenarios on how you’ll respond to change. Here are a few critical steps not to miss: 

    • Log changes. Changes should not go unnoticed. Make sure you keep a record of every additional requirement to the scope, so it’s easier to report to the client and ask for additional resources when necessary. 
    • Re-plan. Keeping your baseline up-to-date can help you communicate project progress and lack of resources, among other things. 
    • Request additional funding. If you follow the two above steps, you have solid proof for requesting additional funding or resources from your client. 

Many of us would feel frustrated with even the smallest changes, as that means that the initial project plan we’ve put together with the project schedule, can easily go to waste. Remember that well-prepared project managers have the right tools and aim higher than another spreadsheet, so they can react to change fast by quickly re-planning their baselines and being able to tell how changes will affect their resources, deadlines, and budgets. Forecast’s Auto Schedule, for example, creates a simulation where you can accommodate changes in your plan without losing control over how it influences your project. 

3. Educate your clients

To prevent scope creep, set up discovery sessions with your clients in the early stages even before the project begins and develop processes and strategies around change requests.

Letting the clients in on your processes and agreeing what’s best for both sides is essential to your success and future collaboration. Make sure everybody is on the same page when it comes to change management. 

When you move further into the execution phase of the project, set up weekly status meetings to keep everyone in the loop about what’s happening. Also, confirm that everyone’s definition of change is the same across all touchpoints. Now, on to the next tip, it will help you better identify the meaning of change. 


4. Filter simple adjustments from new tasks

This one is very specific and critical for both avoiding scope creep and not becoming a control freak. Whenever you receive feedback on your project deliverables, make sure to distinguish the input from what is a simple adjustment to your work from an entirely new task. Adjustments can be alright, of course, but new tasks are most often out of the initially defined scope.

The difference is in what the client is asking to have changed. An adjustment is a simple change to adapt the experience slightly, i.e., the design of a button in a mobile app. A new task is if the nature of this button is asked to be changed, i.e., creating an entirely new flow or building a new feature around it.

Suggestions and feature requests can be alright, but significant changes need to result in an extended agreement. Of course, this is in the case that the feature or change is clearly out of the scope and not just a simple adjustment of the current project. If it is indeed a new task, say something like, ‘We can definitely do that, but this is out of the initially agreed scope of the project. Would you like me to do an estimation of the time and costs for you?’. In this way, you are open to the adjustment but are also making sure that your project remains profitable.

Approved tasks in scoping

Forecast has a simple flow built in to cater for this approval process. You can easily add new tasks to your SOW during the project. The tasks will stay as suggestions until a further approval process has taken place. You can add detailed information to the job, by entering a low and high estimate. You immediately get a more accurate time frame and price to propose to your client. If agreed, you can move the new task(s) into a new or current milestone, and approve the task for production.


Bonus tips: Watch out for signs & track your time

Often, how your team behaves and completes tasks can warn you and help you avoid scope creep! First off, learn what your team is doing. What are your team’s project accomplishments? Are things too quiet? Is everything OK every time you ask? Too much of quietness or affirmations can serve as a wake up call that something’s not right.

Another thing that helps to avoid scope creep is time tracking. Timesheets shed light on where your team’s time is going and allow you to tell if the project is on time and on budget. Off topic, if you foster a time registration discipline, your employees will also be able to revisit their own productivity and improve work-life balance.

Team (1)

To manage projects, resources, time, and budget successfully, you’ll need one full-suite command center. Forecast’s complete solution is a go-to, as it arms you with all the necessary tools to button up every project stage.

With all tasks in one place, complete with all the information you need, i.e., descriptions, subtasks, assigned people, time entries, design files, comments, and so forth, you can evaluate if the project goes according to your plan and focus on the bottlenecks too.

A proper project management solution should be able to store everything related to the project and each task in one place, giving your team a place to get the one-truth, and thus a place to refer back to if any questions arise. Project management solution helps your team with being able to communicate in the right context if the task is going through several hands along the way.


Managing project scope creep with pricing

Every year, project scope creep is eating up millions from the companies’ bottom lines. The pricing model you choose for the project might be the reason for that. Traditional fixed price projects won’t give you much flexibility with change requests, so a work around could be retainer pricing, a more agile approach to both project management and finances. Here’s our guide on how to introduce retainer pricing if you’re interested in more predictable revenue models. 

Now, completely avoiding scope creep can be tricky, but following the steps above can greatly improve your chances of detecting potential loopholes early. No matter, whether they arise from an unclear SOW or your client trying to, maybe unintentionally, adding extra work to your agreed scope - avoiding scope creep is paramount.

Try Forecast to experience how easy you can get an overview and understanding of your project's progress.

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