What is scope creep in project management?

What is scope creep in project management - cover

Could you please add just this one thing…?

While you’re at it, it might be a good idea to also incorporate…

Would it be too much work to make just this one small change?

Like a curse that keeps plaguing projects across all business fields, these words are the heralds of the most terrifying boogeyman of project management — scope creep.

Scope creep is one of the top three reasons for poor project performance, which, among other things, causes astronomical financial losses. 

According to research, 9.9% of every dollar goes to waste because of poor project performance, leading to a loss of $99 million dollars for every billion invested. And yet, only 6% of project managers list scope creep prevention as part of their risk management plan.

But what exactly is scope creep? Is it really that terrifying? What are the main causes of scope creep and is there a way to avoid it? These and other related questions are the focus of this article.

What is scope creep?

Assuming you are familiar with the definition of scope, scope creep should be fairly easy to understand. 

Scope creep is when a project manager is asked to do more work within the same amount of time and within the same budgetary constraints. 

It sounds stressful — but is it really that bad?

Well, according to Wellingtone’s 2021 Annual Report, it may be:

  • Only 34% of organizations complete their projects on time, 
  • Only 34% complete their projects without going over the budget, and 
  • Only 45% say that their organization has a track record of success in projects. 

One of the main reasons for these low numbers is precisely scope creep.

Two types of scope creep

Scope creep falls under two general categories — business creep and technology creep.

Although they both lead to more work and stress for the project team, it’s good to know the difference between them and possible ways to avoid them.

Business creep

Business creep can be the project manager’s fault when it happens as a result of poor understanding of the project objectives or stakeholder intentions, or as a result of poor preparation and leadership. 

On the other hand, it can also be the stakeholders’ fault. This often happens as a result of indecisive clients who don’t know what exactly it is they want until they have a half-finished product in front of them. 

Other common reasons for business creep include the change of:

  • Sponsors, 
  • Other key stakeholders, or 
  • Project goals and priorities. 

This type of scope creep should always be expected — but it’s nigh-impossible to avoid because it depends on external factors. 

Some things project managers can do to attempt to counter business creep, according to the Project Perfect White Paper Collection, are:

  • Identify the must-haves and nice-to-haves. Prioritize all the must-haves, set them up as separate deliverables, identify their risks, and make sure the stakeholders understand them.
  • Communicate the expectations to stakeholders.
  • Document everything that falls within scope and out of scope in the statement of work (SOW), and get the stakeholders’ approval. 
  • Set up a formal scope change process.
  • Analyze all change requests and create an estimate of their expected time and cost. 

Most stakeholders have only a vague idea of what goes into creating their requested product. 

By explaining everything in great detail and presenting them with concrete examples and numbers, you can reach a greater understanding and reduce the chances of receiving unreasonable change requests.

Technology creep

Technology creep is much easier to avoid because it’s self-inflicted

Simply put, technology creep happens when the project manager or project team try to:

  • Overdeliver in order to please the customer, or 
  • Add new features to the product because they think they’re “cool” — even though no one asked for them. 

This type of change is called gold plating.

Technology creep may also happen due to inadequate understanding of the project requirements, or sudden issues that result in emergency action without prior approval from the project manager. 

The best way to combat technology creep is to always follow the proper procedure for making changes to the scope, and avoid aiming for the stars. 

In other words, make a plan and stick to it as best as possible — that’s the shortest path to project completion.

Scope creep vs gold plating

Two very similar, and often confused terms in project management are scope creep and gold plating

As explained earlier, scope creep occurs when the project manager is asked to do more work than was initially agreed upon, without being given more time or resources to do so. In the case of scope creep, the client or shareholders are the ones requesting the changes.

On the other hand, gold plating happens when the project team takes the initiative to add extra features, use better materials, or in other ways improve the end product. 

At first glance, this might look like the project team burying themselves into a hole. 

However, gold plating doesn’t necessarily lead to scope creep.

The reasons for gold plating may vary, and — while it does occasionally result in scope creep — gold plating is done consciously, with a specific goal in mind. 

Some of the possible reasons for gold plating are:

  • Improve the project in the eyes of the client,
  • Gain approval from the management,
  • Show off the team’s abilities, or
  • Mask product deficiencies. 

Does this mean gold plating is good?

Not necessarily.

While gold plating can result in a happy customer — and possibly a recurring one — it can also create a slew of unnecessary problems, such as:

  • Upsetting the client due to unauthorized changes,
  • The client refusing to accept the product due to unwanted changes,
  • Setting overly high standards or precedents for future projects, or
  • Missing deadlines because of self-imposed scope expansion.

In the end, although gold plating may occasionally lead to a favorable outcome — unlike scope creep — it comes at enormous risk and should be avoided if at all possible. 

Why is scope creep bad?

Based on the definition of scope creep, it’s clear that one of its adverse effects is increasing the project team’s workload. But is this enough to justify the statistic that 92% of projects fail because of it?

Hardly.

The increase in workload is only the first domino that makes all the others come crashing down.

And here is how.

Scope creep results in overtime and missed deadlines

Once the deadlines and schedules have been set, the project team needs to organize themselves within those boundaries. A case of scope creep crammed into that schedule throws the workflow off-balance and results in the employees having to put in more hours to finish the project on time.

More hours means less revenue per hour. 

It also leads to stressed employees, and stressed employees are more likely to make mistakes, which could lead to further scope creep. 

Add to this the high likelihood of breaching the original deadline, and the result is a frustrated team and a dissatisfied client.

One way to combat this issue is to charge by the hour, which could somewhat dissuade stakeholders from requesting too many changes. 

However, this is difficult to pull off with longer projects and doesn’t account for scope creep that results from employee or project manager carelessness. 

Scope creep leads to a drop in quality and a drained budget

Since good project managers always plan for scope creep, one or two cases don’t make a huge difference to the overall project. When scope creep starts snowballing is when the real problems begin.

Rushing to meet the deadlines while having to do more work than was initially planned inevitably leads to a shift in priorities. And, the items that end up at the bottom of that priority list tend to suffer in quality. 

Additionally, a minor additional feature added in the middle of the project forces the team to go back to the drawing board, redo the entire design, and then have it manufactured all over again — rendering all the project team’s previous work practically useless.

Sudden appearances of scope creep in the design or features department can cost a company millions. According to PMI’s Survey, the global losses can amount to up to $2 trillion every year. 

Scope creep harms the reputation

In a large number of cases, the end-users of the product that’s being created are regular people. Customers hold the bulk of the power of a company’s reputation. They pour their money into the company’s proverbial wallet because they trust the company and like their products. But it’s very easy to go from hero to zero if that trust is betrayed.

Take this hypothetical situation, for example. 

A leading smartphone manufacturer announces a fantastic new phone with a slew of features that outperform the competition in every way. 

Midway through the marketing campaign, a quarter of the announced features are removed, and the company announces that their new model will no longer feature a headphone jack. Plus, the charger will be sold separately.

Outrage and chaos ensue.

This particular example was presented because it somewhat resembles the outrage over Apple’s similar announcement. The difference is that Apple is a well-established company with a long history and millions of loyal customers. As a result, their reputation only took a small hit. A smaller company probably wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Primary causes of scope creep

Considering that scope creep happens as a result of stakeholder requests, it’s not uncommon to see an unwanted change in scope blamed solely on these stakeholders. 

But, additional scope can creep up from all sides. 

Over the years, some of the primary causes of scope creep have become apparent — and it so happens that most of the fault lies with project managers.

Here is why.

Poor communication

Project managers are the key mediators between clients, other key stakeholders, and project teams. A good project manager should have well-established two-way communication with all key parties. 

From the project’s infancy, until completion, it’s the project manager’s job to successfully communicate the scope of the project to the client and stakeholders, as well as the project requirements to the rest of the team. 

Once the project is well underway it’s not unusual to see key stakeholders who are completely unaware of what is happening on a given project because they are busy with their other work.

It’s the project manager’s responsibility to keep all key stakeholders informed about the progress of the project, any pitfalls, or changes that might be happening. Slipping a gentle reminder about periodic report meetings, or signoffs is all part of the job description.

Poor communication at any stage of the project may lead to scope creep.

One thing that should be avoided at all costs, however, is allowing free communication between stakeholders and the project team. This could allow stakeholders to bypass formal procedures and pitch changes straight to the team, which could eventually lead to unauthorized changes. 

Poor management skills

To keep everyone and everything organized and under control, a project manager must be a good leader. 

This goes for:

  • Managing teams, 
  • Managing tasks, 
  • Managing schedules,
  • Dealing with clients, and 
  • Dealing with other key stakeholders.

Showing weakness and inexperience can lead to being overwhelmed by unreasonable demands. This can also lead to taking on more responsibilities than the team is able to handle. 

A big part of being a strong leader is understanding priorities and being able to say “No” — especially when those priorities show signs of being replaced by whimsical requests. 

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Want to learn more about the skills a good manager should possess? Check out this guide:

Excessive stakeholder involvement

Excessive stakeholder involvement is probably one of the top five culprits for scope creep. In combination with weak management, it becomes a recipe for disaster. 

It’s not uncommon to encounter stakeholders who fashion themselves managers. 

This can get especially tiring if there is a high number of stakeholders all pushing their own conflicting agendas. 

With too many people having a say in how the project should turn out, it’s near impossible to find common ground — this inevitably leads to arguments and scope changes.

One way to reduce the chances of this is to limit the number of key stakeholders as much as possible. 

If this is not possible, try the following:

  • Organize extensive discussion sessions before the beginning of the project, and 
  • Make a clear plan, to understand everyone’s goals and motivations. 

Late user feedback

Feedback is always welcome. And, not involving users in the early stages of project development in cases that require user feedback is a rookie mistake. 

Late feedback often leads to the realization that there is something fundamentally wrong with the project, or that an important aspect of the product was overlooked — which inevitably results in scope creep.

By involving end-users from the very beginning, you avoid the risk of learning important information too late to avoid scope creep.

Poor preparation

Ezra Taft Benson once said, “It is better to prepare and prevent than it is to repair and repent.” Despite it being used in a context completely unrelated to project management, the quote stands as one of the universal wisdoms of life. 

Although too much preparation can also be detrimental, charging into a project blindly, or half-prepared, and expecting to wing it is irresponsible, at best. 

Preparation is key to project completion. 

Before starting the project, the manager needs to have a thorough understanding of:

  • The project objectives, 
  • The stakeholders’ expectations and motives, 
  • Everyone’s responsibilities, 
  • Everyone’s deadlines, 
  • Everyone’s schedules, and 
  • Everyone’s deliverables. 

Any vagueness or generalization can lead to confusion and insecurity.

Having the scope of the project defined in broad strokes, or having only a general idea of the client’s vision always results in surprises and drastic course changes down the road.

An inadequate understanding of the project might not only lead to poor execution, but also to poor estimation. 

Scheduling, deadlines, and budget all depend on the project manager’s ability to accurately estimate the cost of the project and the time needed to complete it. 

In conclusion — poor preparation dooms the project to scope creep from the start.

How to avoid scope creep

Making changes to an ongoing project is inevitable — but experiencing scope creep doesn’t have to be. 

Knowing this, it’s important that every project begins with the assumption that there will be changes down the road — and with plans on how to make sure those changes don’t result in scope creep. 

Luckily, now that we know the main causes of scope creep, we can begin to plan ways to prevent it, or at least reduce the possibility of it causing project failure. 

Here are five things you can do to help counter scope creep.

Clearly define scope

Given that the scope statement is the document where all objectives, requirements, and deliverables for a project are defined prior to the beginning of project execution, an ill-defined scope can lead to a host of unexpected problems down the road.

To maximize the chance of project success, it’s important to have a well-researched and thoroughly defined list of requirements that will be discussed with all key stakeholders and gain all the necessary approvals before the project begins.

Create a clear change control protocol

We’ve established that making some changes to an ongoing project is inevitable — but that doesn’t mean that all changes should be accepted as such. 

To avoid unnecessary and detrimental scope changes, a project manager should create a clearly defined change control protocol as part of a scope management plan

A change control protocol is a plan for regulating proposed changes. 

During this process, the proposed changes are evaluated, and either approved or rejected — based on their level of necessity to the project.

By ensuring all change requests go through the same change control process, the project manager:

  • Maintains control over the changes, 
  • Gets a chance at negotiating, and 
  • Prevents any unauthorized changes. 

Communicate with key stakeholders

An important aspect to keeping the project scope under control is making sure that everyone who has significant stakes in the project is regularly informed about the progress of the project — and able to provide feedback. 

This includes:

  • Being in touch with key stakeholders from the earliest stages of the project, 
  • Making sure they understand the scope of work required to complete the project, 
  • Familiarizing stakeholders with the change control protocol,
  • Being transparent regarding the project progress, and
  • Arranging regular meetings during the duration of the project.

Making sure that everyone is always on the same page eliminates any surprises, and reduces the possibility of change requests for parts of the project that have already been marked as finished.

Charge for changes

When you know that the change the client is requesting will create a major setback, but they refuse to back out, you could resort to charging for additional changes.

This move could either dissuade the client from pursuing the issue further, or else, get you a budget increase. 

Another good tactic is to swap out old deliverables with new ones, if the deadlines allow it.

Although, this only works if the old deliverables are not yet finished.

Make use of project management tools

With the help of modern technology and the numerous project management tools, both paid, and free ones, such as Plaky, even the complicated project management processes can be made easier. 

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Plaky

PM tools are not only useful for managing and tracking tasks for the project team. They can also allow important stakeholders to keep track of the project’s progress — improving transparency, and saving everyone’s time in the process. 

PM software can also help inform everyone about the project changes and enforce them by automatically adjusting deadlines, schedules, and tasks across all fields once changes to the project scope have been made. 

Are all changes in project management bad?

It’s important to overcome any perception that change is bad, especially in strategic initiatives”, says Andy Jordan, President of the management consulting firm, Roffensian Consulting S.A.

According to him, bad changes in project management are related to the planning, i.e. changes in scope, budget, and schedule. 

Good changes, on the other hand, are related to project alignment:

  • Taking advantage of new opportunities, 
  • Making sure that the project remains true to its initial strategic goals, or 
  • Aligning it to newly established priorities and requirements.

Jordan recognizes that even good change sets the project off-balance, and should be incorporated into initial project planning if at all possible, in order to soften its impact. 

However, with the exception of the project’s end-phase, he claims that “in all cases, the cost of not implementing good changes will likely be higher than the cost of implementing.” 

Choosing not to accept valid change requests due to a complicated scope change process, or the fear of scope creep is what is called scope kill, and is highly detrimental to projects.

Can even scope creep be good?

While not necessarily a good thing in itself, scope creep can occasionally have positive results, depending on how it’s handled.

According to PSMJ Resources, every case of scope creep can be an opportunity. Instead of fearing it, embracing it and using it for the company’s own benefit would be a better approach.

As they say, “No project operates in a vacuum”, so it’s important to look at the big picture. If scope creep can’t be avoided, then the best thing a project manager can do is find a way to exploit it instead of panicking and eventually painting themselves into a corner. 

Jessica Hall talks about this in her speech titled “There’s no such thing as scope creep”. She stresses ruthless prioritizing and tradeoffs as the most important aspects of effectively managing a project. 

If a new and unavoidable request has popped up, think, “What can I give up to fit this in?”. If no such thing is possible, leverage the situation by making the product better than originally planned and accept the client’s satisfaction and good reputation as rewards for your hard work.

After all, word of mouth is the best marketing tool.

Conclusion: Project success depends on how you handle scope creep

Scope creep is the wraith that haunts project managers everywhere. And, according to research, the sole culprit for the majority of project failures. 

However, scope creep is not an untamable beast, and some even believe it can be a fantastic growth opportunity. 

Perhaps scope creep is not as scary as it sounds, and perhaps it doesn’t need to be countered at every corner. Embracing scope expansion might actually lead to a slew of benefits as the existing and potential clients, users, and stakeholders take notice of your abilities. 

After all, the riskiest ventures are often the most profitable. But this remains an option for the daring ones.

For those wishing to avoid it at all costs, preparation and strong leadership are key. Detailed planning, a firm stance at the negotiation table, and open communication are most of what stands between a project manager and a successfully completed project.

References

  • Atlassian. (2017, September 15). There Is No Such Thing as Scope Creep – Atlassian Summit U.S. 2017 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2PXF-Q_3MQ 
  • Høylandskjær, M. (2019). Managerial Perceptions of Scope Creep in Projects: A Multiple Case Study [Masters thesis, Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics]. Umeå University. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1287334/FULLTEXT01.pdf 
  • Jordan, A. (2016, Oct 10). Good Change vs. Bad Change. Project Management. https://www.projectmanagement.com/contentPages/article.cfm?ID=347569&thisPageURL=/articles/347569/Good-Change-vs–Bad-Change#_=_ 
  • Komal, B. et al. (2020). The impact of scope creep in project success: An empirical investigation. IEEE Access, 8, 125755-125775. https://doi.org/10.1109/ACCESS.2020.3007098.
  • Project Management Insititute. (2018). Success in disruptive times: Expanding the value delivery Landscape to address the high cost of low performance. PMI. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2018.pdf 
  • Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.
  • PSMJ Resources, Inc. (2019, Dec 24). Can Scope Creep Be a Good Thing?. PSMJ. https://go.psmj.com/blog/can-scope-creep-be-a-good-thing 
  • Sandler, R. (2020, October 13). New iPhones Won’t Come With Headphones Or A Charging Box Anymore. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2020/10/13/new-iphones-wont-come-with-headphones-or-a-charging-box-anymore/?sh=5382fce6265b 
  • Suresh, B. (2005, Jun 6). Scope Creep Management [white paper]. Project Perfect. http://www.projectperfect.com.au/downloads/Info/info_scope_creep_mgmt.pdf 
  • Wellingtone. (2021). The State of Project Management. Wellingtone. https://wellingtone.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/The-State-of-PM-2021.pdf

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