What is gold plating in project management?

From time to time it happens that a project team member exceeds the project scope and goes beyond initial requirements — this practice is known as gold plating.

As gold plating is a common practice in project management, and both project managers and project team members should be aware of it, some basics should be covered.

Luckily, we’ve got your back!

In this guide, we’ll tackle the following points:

  • What gold plating means in project management, in more detail
  • Whether gold plating is good or bad
  • The difference between gold plating and scope creep
  • Real-life examples of gold plating
  • Causes of gold plating
  • Consequences of gold plating
  • Tips to avoid gold plating

So, let’s dive in.

Gold plating - cover

What is gold plating in project management?

Imagine that you work in an IT company and that you’re developing a new app.

You’ve already met project requirements, and the client is satisfied. 

However, the story doesn’t end here. 

You’re a perfectionist, and you feel the need to keep polishing the work to impress everyone around you. 

As a result, you end up going over budget, or even worse — creating something entirely different that the client won’t accept.

This practice in project management is called — gold plating.

Gold plating involves adding more features to a deliverable than was considered in the original scope plan.

Is gold plating good or bad?

Due to its name — gold plating — people often think that gold plating is good.

However, despite the term — all that glitters is not gold. 

So, if you’re in doubt about whether gold plating is good or bad, the answer is — gold plating is bad

To elaborate, gold plating can be extremely harmful to the project management process, causing several negative consequences — such as:

  • Schedule delays, 
  • Budget overruns, or
  • Client dissatisfaction.

Instead of adding bonus features, project team members should follow the scope plan and deliver what the client has actually asked for.

Note: Not all changes are bad — just those that aren’t officially assessed. As long as they’re regulated through official procedures — additional changes can be good and aren’t considered gold plating.

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

Gold plating and scope creep are terms often used interchangeably. However — they are not the same.

Gold plating is when a project team member voluntarily adds more features than the client has requested.

On the other hand, scope creep is a situation where the client or any other project stakeholder requests that certain changes be made — without proper prior authorization.

Both practices are considered bad in project management — without considering the consequences first, changes can lead to project failure.

3 Examples of gold plating in project management 

To help you better understand what gold plating looks like in real life, we’ve prepared a couple of examples. 

While going through the following examples, try to think of all the negative consequences this bad practice can have on both the current project, and all projects in the future.

Example of gold plating #1

Imagine an IT company being hired to create a simple website. 

Without previously consulting with the client, the team working on the project decides to voluntarily add a digital clock on the website, assuming that the feature would be both useful and visually appealing.

However, there’s a solid reason why this feature wasn’t requested by the client in the first place. 

Not only will this bonus feature trigger additional costs in the future, but it will only create confusion when the website is used in different countries and time zones. 

Example of gold plating #2 

In scenario #2, the IT company is hired to develop an app for desktop users. 

However, as team members finish early, they decide to do some extra work to fulfill their time, so they voluntarily develop a simple mobile version of the app. 

At first, the client is happy about getting this bonus service for free. 

But, soon enough, certain technical issues start to appear in the mobile version of the app, and the client now asks the company to fix these bugs for free. 

The company has to either disappoint — and potentially lose a recurring client — or they need to spend extra money to fix something the client hasn’t even requested or paid for in the first place. 

Example of gold plating #3

The third scenario would be the same IT company being hired to create a new and complex business website for their client. 

During the project, one team member decides to add some creative videos to place them on the landing page, assuming this would cause admiration and praise. 

However, instead of being happy about getting bonus work done, the client ends up being completely dissatisfied with the final result, as the page, complex that it is, now takes even longer to load. 

The client must ask the company to redo the project, and unfortunately misses the planned launch date for the website.

Causes of gold plating in project management

Now that you understand what gold plating is — as well as what it’s not and how it looks like in real life — it’s time to move on to what causes it.

We already touched upon this in the examples and definitions above.

So, here are the 5 common reasons that trigger gold plating:

  • A wish to impress the client,
  • Seeking recognition from clients or the team,
  • Striving for perfection,
  • Hiding project flaws from stakeholders, and
  • Poor communication with stakeholders or within the project team.

Cause #1: A wish to impress the client or project team

Project team members sometimes voluntarily make free additions to a project deliverable, assuming that this would impress other team members, or the client themself.

However, instead of just showing off, this practice can cause negative consequences, such as client dissatisfaction with the final deliverable.

Cause #2: Seeking recognition 

Sometimes, project team members gold plate a project hoping to:

  • Showcase their skills to the project team leader,
  • Gain recognition for their abilities, and
  • Win praise directly from the client. 

Cause #3: Being a perfectionist

Whether you’re a project team member or a team leader, you should avoid perfectionism. 

It’s important to know that, in the context of project management, being sufficient is enough

In other words — all that you need to do is to meet all the originally established requirements, and nothing above that. 

Getting stuck in details and always striving to “make things better” might throw you off track, causing unwanted results, such as time or budget overruns.  

As stated by Mark C. Layton in Agile project management for Dummies

“With agile project management, the term barely sufficient is a positive description, meaning that a task, document, meeting, or almost anything on a project includes only what it needs to achieve the goal. Being barely sufficient is practical and efficient.” 

Cause #4: Hiding project flaws from stakeholders

Sometimes, the reasons behind gold plating are intentional. 

Gold plating might be done on purpose, to divert the attention of the client from certain project flaws and weaknesses. 

Cause #5: Poor communication

Poor communication is one of the most common gold plating triggers. 

It can be the root of many problems and misunderstandings occurring both among team members, and in communication with project stakeholders.

Without a clear picture of what is expected of them, project team members might easily turn to gold plating.  

What are the consequences of gold plating?

Doing more work than initially agreed upon rarely goes without consequences — as we’ve already discussed earlier. 

Many unnecessary project risks can occur due to gold plating. These risks can further endanger either the current project or any other future projects.

So, let’s dive deeper into the consequences gold plating causes, such as:

  • Time overruns,
  • Budget overruns,
  • Impact on other requirements,
  • Client distrust, and
  • Threat to future projects.  

Consequence #1: Time overruns 

If you decide to upgrade a project without consulting the client first, chances are you’re going to end up missing key deadlines

As time overruns seem rather unprofessional in the eyes of clients and stakeholders — you might as well avoid spending valuable time gold plating the project.  

Apart from that, schedule delays will most likely require other project area readjustments, such as budget readjustments. Moreover, they might push back certain other projects you have lined up in the future — which might mean more missed deadlines.

Consequence #2: Budget overruns

Project team members who’re adding extra features to a deliverable tend to underestimate the costs of that practice. 

Supposing that some extra features are at fault for some reason — the project team would have to spend money on removing, or correcting these additions. 

In other words — gold plating frequently includes unforeseen budget overruns. 

Consequence #3: Impact on other project requirements 

Essentially, gold plating a project with some minor additions may consequently affect other project areas.

Voluntarily adding a feature to a project deliverable might cause a chain reaction, triggering some other project area requirements, such as:

  • Human resource requirements, 
  • Security requirements,
  • Budget estimates, or
  • Additional documentation.

Consequence #4: Client distrust

Adding your own flavor to a project can be tolerated, but only if you follow official procedures.

Otherwise, introducing changes on your own, and not sticking to what you’ve initially agreed upon — the client may no longer feel confident that you’ll follow their instructions the next time they hire you. As a result, they might stop hiring you in the future.

So, to establish trust with your client, be extra careful to avoid gold plating the project.

Consequence #5: Threat to future projects

Though at first glance it seems generous to provide additions or upgrades for free — in reality, this practice might jeopardize your future projects. 

Scenario number 1 is that the client starts believing they paid too much money for your services since you obviously have a lot of spare time to do extra work. Maybe they could just pay less and get what they really need, right?

Scenario number 2 is that the client gets accustomed to the perks of getting extra work done — so next time when you don’t gold plate a project, they’ll be disappointed. 

Either way, you’ll most likely set a bad precedent for your future projects, or what’s even worse — you could lose them.

How to avoid gold plating in project management?

As gold plating might happen unintentionally, often causing a series of negative consequences, we say — it’s better to prevent than to cure. 

So, if you prevent gold plating on time, you’ll save yourself from dealing with unnecessary issues later on.

Luckily, we’ve prepared a couple of tips any project manager should have up their sleeve.

Tip #1: Raise awareness about gold plating

If you wish to avoid gold plating, each team member should first be familiar with the phenomenon.

Not being aware of its existence, you won’t be able to prevent it.

Any skilled project manager should focus on raising awareness about gold plating by identifying possible gold plating situations and spreading knowledge about its causes and consequences.

This way, each team member will think twice before making any additions on their own.

Tip #2: Have a clearly defined project scope

The very first thing a project manager should do when starting a new project is to define the project scope by creating a detailed plan on what is needed to develop a product or service. 

Scope determines all work and tasks that need to be done to finish a project. 

By having a clearly defined scope baseline, you’ll manage and control the scope, as well as all change requests and modifications that occur during the process — which will naturally prevent the occurrence of gold plating.

Tip #3: Use a project management tool to assign tasks to team members

Another proven way to avoid gold plating is to assign tasks transparently, which means it should be crystal clear who’s doing which task at all times. 

One way to achieve transparency in task management is to use an intuitive project management tool such as Plaky

Plaky enables you to assign different tasks to different team members, and further specify these tasks.

Here’s an example of what it looks like to manage a project in Plaky: 

plaky homepage-screenshot

In the example above, you can see how one marketing project is organized in different groups (i.e.. this month’s tasks and next month’s tasks), and customizable columns, e.g.:

  • Assignee column — where you assign one or multiple team members to different tasks,
  • Type column — where you assign different teams, such as marketing or design,
  • Priority column — where you keep track of ongoing tasks via colored labels representing Low, Medium, and High priority tasks.
  • Status column — where you keep track of different statuses with colored labels, such as In progress, Stuck, or Done, and
  • Due date column — where you define deadlines for tasks.

Keeping all important information in one place — such as a Plaky workspace — you’ll know exactly what stage of the project you’re at, and thus control its development. 

There won’t be room for unplanned changes and gold plating, as all team members will know exactly what their assignments and deadlines are.

Tip #4: Insist on following official procedures for introducing changes

There will come a time when project team members will suggest certain changes be made for the good of the project.

And, of course, changes can be good, especially in agile — as long as they’ve been evaluated and authorized first. 

However, making changes without prior revision will be considered gold plating.

So, all project managers should insist on following official change procedures, and create a clearly defined change control protocol, —i.e. a plan for regulating proposed changes. 

During this process, the proposed changes will be evaluated, and either approved or rejected. 

Following official procedures, the project manager:

  • Maintains control over the changes, and 
  • Prevents gold plating.

Tip #5: Give feedback to project team members

It goes without saying that good communication in project management is key to the success of any project. 

Another tip on how to enhance it is to focus on giving constructive feedback to project team members. 

Receiving enough feedback, team members won’t feel the need to gold plate a project in an effort to earn praise from their managers or clients. 

Tip #6: Listen to your clients and stakeholders

Listening skills are crucial when starting a new project. 

This is the moment when you differentiate what your client wants or doesn’t want you to deliver.

In other words, it’s important to differentiate what is:

  • Within the project scope, and
  • Out of the project scope.

By understanding the client, you’ll know exactly what it is that you’re creating.

This will help prevent gold plating a project with additional non-requested features.

Conclusion: Deliver only what you’re asked to deliver

In conclusion, gold plating is a bad practice that might happen during the project development process, either intentionally or not. 

There are many theories behind what causes gold plating, and how it should be dealt with, and we tried to tackle them in this guide.  

However, among dozens and dozens of theories and advice out there — there is one idea that represents the essence of all — deliver only what you’re asked to deliver. 

So, if you are asked and paid to design the front side of a business card, don’t be tempted to do the back side as well — even if it doesn’t make any sense at all to leave it blank. 

Performing only the requested and agreed on work may seem like you’re not doing enough — but, it’s exactly what you should do in project work.

References 

  • Ahmed, A. (2016). Software project management: A process-driven approach. CRC Press.
  • Layton, M. C. (2012). Agile Project Management for dummies. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Milton D. R., Gregory D. G. (2011). Successful Project Management: A Step-by-Step Approach with Practical Examples. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Moustafaev, J. (2014). Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects. CRC Press. 
  • Top five causes of SCOPE CREEP – Project Management Institute. Available at https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/top-five-causes-scope-creep-6675

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