Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
December 19, 2019 · 11 min read

7 Steps to Deal With Scope Creep (What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It?)

7 Steps to Deal With Scope Creep

“You know what would be cool?”

Every project manager has heard these words and felt a chill run down their spine. With just a few words, a simple, easy-to-execute project plan can be suddenly transformed into the project management equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting.

For a project to succeed, you need a clearly defined and agreed-upon scope (i.e., what you’re going to build and what you need to get there). However, few things go as planned.

Change is inevitable in business and in life. And every project will face moments when you need to reassess what you’re building and potentially adjust course.

But if these moments aren’t handled properly, scope creep can come in and balloon budgets, kill collaboration, and send even the best-laid plans crashing into the rocks.

So how can you squash harmful scope creep and keep your project team agile, productive, and motivated as you handle changes?

What is scope creep? And why is it so dangerous?

First, let’s define what we’re dealing with here.

In its simplest form, scope creep is when a project’s requirements, goals, or vision changes beyond what was originally agreed upon.

When this happens, the project is no longer clearly defined and the borders of responsibility—and, ultimately, completion—become fuzzy. Maybe little things are being added incrementally. Or maybe a big side project gets tacked on to the original brief because, hey, it’s close enough in content.

Either way, you suddenly find you’ve got a whole mess of items to complete that were not in the original and agreed-upon plan.

The problem isn’t that you’re facing these changes. The best project managers are adaptable and know how to negotiate and handle when things shift away from the original plan. It’s that if dealt with incorrectly, small changes to your original scope ultimately turn into big headaches down the road.

Here’s what we mean.

Most software development processes begin by clearly and carefully defining what you’re going to make. The result is a Scope of Work (SOW)—a powerful project planning document that should include:

You can think of your SOW as a roadmap. And just like a real roadmap, making a wrong turn along the way can send you wildly off course.

Let’s say you’re working on a major overhaul of your website. You’ve spent the time to diligently discuss and work out the tasks, deliverables, and resources you need. Your team is inspired and working away. And then all of a sudden, the CEO swoops in and suggests a change in the site structure.

Ok. No big deal. You have to re-do a bit of work but that’s ok. A week later, however, she’s back. She showed off your early wireframes to an investor and they think you should change your homepage structure, throwing the last few weeks of work in the trash.

All of a sudden, those small requests mean you’re a month behind on your schedule, your team’s upset and frustrated that they keep redoing their work. And who’s everyone looking to blame? You.

Scope creep isn’t just bad for project managers. It’s bad for everyone involved in your team and project.

Scope creep can have wide-reaching consequences, turning a straightforward and coherent project into a nightmare for just about everyone involved. It can easily lead to arguments over the division of labor—not to mention cost overruns, missed deadlines, and even project failure.

Scope Creep is Bad for Everyone

Not only does scope creep make you look bad as a project manager, but it hurts pretty much everyone involved in the project.

Scope creep is bad for you, the project manager because it creates confusion and even chaos as you work to reshuffle, reorganize, reprioritize, and (at times) get the client to cough up extra money for the new work they’ve requested.

Scope creep is bad for your team, as it kills their trust in you and the process. Your teammates are all striving to manage their time in a responsible fashion and with the objectives that were originally presented to them. Having additional tasks tossed on their plates is the last thing anyone wants.

Scope creep is bad for the various project stakeholders, who all have their own unique needs and expectations and might not be happy with the new direction or changes to cost and launch date.

Scope creep is bad for your company, especially if it causes you to hit cost overruns, disappoint users, or create a complicated, less focused version of your product.

And finally, scope creep is bad for users, who might end up with a jumbled version of whatever outcome or finished product was intended in the first place.

How does scope creep happen in project management?

In the scope creep example above, we talked about how stakeholder feedback can send your project off the rails. However, that’s not the only cause of scope creep.

If you think of a project’s scope as a defined set of boundaries, it’s easy to see how those boundaries might be tested and even knocked down if you’re not paying close attention.

Project management isn’t just about understanding basic project management skills like planning, task management, and scheduling. It’s about managing people and expectations. Everyone has their own vision of how they want your project to play out and is a potential source of scope creep.

Here are a few examples:

Of course, not all the blame for scope creep can be placed on other people. In many situations, it’s the project managers themselves who cause scopes to get out of hand. Here are a number of ways that scenario can happen:

7 ways to avoid scope creep and keep your project on track

Scope creep is a common problem across all industries, and it can come from anywhere. But more often than not, it’s the fault of poor project management skills. Luckily, with a bit of upfront investment and the right tools, you can keep your scope from creepin’.

Here are seven ways to keep scope creep from happening or to stop it in its tracks.

1. Know your project goals from the start

How can you keep your project within its scope, if you don’t know what that is in the first place?

Killing scope creep starts with your SOW. It’s true that the entire team still needs to keep the project on track, but it’s impossible to do that without understanding what the project is, what timelines are involved, who is responsible for what, and what the deliverables should look like.

In addition to the nuts and bolts of a project, an SOW also helps you develop a shared vision that will carry the whole team from project conception to completion. As Richard Banfield, author of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, writes:

“If the team doesn’t agree on the big picture, then they certainly won’t agree on a single feature.”

The same thing goes for your entire project scope. Every team member should have a firm understanding of how each task relates to the bigger whole and how any last-minute changes might be a distraction or even counterproductive.

An SOW alone won’t always offer foolproof protection against scope creep. But it is absolutely essential for recognizing when scope creep is happening so you can stop it in its tracks.

2. Get serious about documenting requirements

One of the best project management skills out there is learning how to properly set requirements. In other words, being able to clearly define the timelines, budgets, and expectations of your team, company, and stakeholders.

While it can be nice to talk these requirements out, they need to be properly documented if you’re going to avoid scope creep. There are a few tools you can use here to help clarify your project requirements.

First, Planio wikis offer a simple way to document requirements, workflows, or even project knowledge and share it with everyone. Simply create a structure for your content and then write down all of your project requirements using rich text formatting, links, file attachments, repository files and anything else your team might need.

Next, make sure that your product backlog is properly groomed and all user stories are relevant and up-to-date. User stories are short, simplified feature descriptions told from the perspective of your users and customers. For example,

“As a [type of user] I want [some particular feature] so that [some benefit] is received.”

As a project planning tool, user stories help you nail down your requirements and make everyone clear on what needs to get done and why you’re doing it. It’s also a great opportunity to share and gather ideas from stakeholders.

Rather than waiting until later in a project when stakeholder feedback can send you scrambling, consult everyone involved in the project early on. Listen to their perspectives and feedback and look for potential areas of conflict or tension that you can hash out now.

One of the best project management skills out there is learning how to properly set requirements.

3. Use project management software to keep everyone on track

If you want to keep your project on schedule, your team focused, and everyone up-to-date, you need a project management tool. Not only will your project management tool help streamline the actual work you’re doing, but it will also help you identify all sorts of red flags that show you’re hitting scope creep.

Planio Agile board screenshot

Here are just a few examples of how you can use Planio to help reduce scope creep and keep your project on track.

First, task management in Planio helps you break large projects down into actionable tasks. This way everyone knows what specific tasks are assigned to them, what needs to be completed to hit your project milestones, as well as priorities and workflows.

Next, you can use built-in time tracking to log time spent on issues and tasks and compare it to your schedule and estimations. As a project manager, you can view a list of all tasks with their corresponding estimated and actual time spent on them to make sure nothing falls behind.

Lastly, Planio was made for Agile teams and makes it easy to do regular sprint planning and retrospectives. This way, you have a clear vision of how the project is progressing and what might be causing the scope to creep. With all your issues already in your product backlog, planning future sprints or project milestones is as easy as dragging and dropping them into a new sprint.

4. Create a change control process

While all of these tips so far have talked about ways to avoid scope creep, it’s naive to think that you’ll never have to deal with it.

As projects stretch out over days, weeks and even months, it’s unsurprising that some elements of the original SOW might change. In these cases, it’s important to have a change control process in place for reviewing and approving reasonable changes and then updating the SOW and workflow in Planio.

In project management, a change control process is your workflow for ensuring each proposed change is adequately defined, reviewed, and approved before making its way into your task list. In its simplest form, a change control process involves 5 steps:

  1. Proposing the change. This is your process for how someone (a customer, teammate, or stakeholder) will suggest a change. It should include specifics such as a description, the expected benefits, and an action plan.
  2. Summary of its impact. Next, you need to summarize the overall impact of this change, including the cost savings or benefit, impact on your schedule, new risks, and impact on other projects.
  3. Decision. Now it’s time for your project decision-maker to decide whether to accept the change, accept it with special conditions, reject, or defer for later consideration.
  4. Implementing the change. If a change is approved, it’s now your job to plan, schedule, and create a timeline for adding the change to the scope of your project.
  5. Closing the change. Finally, once a change has been completed, you need to close the issue and move it into your next retrospective.

Planio tasks are a great tool for tracking change requests, especially from customers. Using the Planio Help Desk, customer requests can email you directly and all of their information will be transferred into an issue.

This way, you have all the information you need to go through your change control process.

5. Set (and stick to) a clear schedule

Time and task management are crucial to sticking to your project’s scope. Yet it’s easy to lose track of time spent on tasks if they’re not clearly broken down and scheduled.

We already spoke about the importance of task management and making sure each task is clearly defined, prioritized, and assigned. But that’s only part of the battle.

To avoid scope creep, you need to maximize communication and minimize surprises.

One of the easiest ways to do this is with daily scrum or standup meetings. These are short, check-ins where you focus on three questions:

Checking in like this, ideally on a daily basis, isn’t just great for keeping people on track. It also reminds them that they’re part of a team with a shared vision and that support is available if they need it.

6. Learn the proper ways to communicate with stakeholders and your team

Project management is about managing people as much as time and resources. On any large project, there’s bound to be a number of different stakeholders who have different ideas about the “right” way for your team to work.

If you give in to every stakeholder demand, you won’t be facing scope creep. You’ll be facing a full-on scope eruption.

To take control of your project’s scope, you’re going to have to learn to say no sometimes. Even to your boss, manager, or an important project stakeholder. Saying no to people in power is never easy. But it’s the best way to protect the quality of a project, and that’s exactly how you should think about it.

You and your team want to deliver the best possible outcome for each of the stakeholders plus the end user. And you can only do that with clear, mutually understood responsibilities, boundaries, and timelines.

If a boss or client asks you to take on additional tasks, try explaining that it exceeds the original SOW and will necessarily interfere with budgets, timelines, and resource allocation.

If a coworker is pushing the creep, saying no should be easy if you’ve gone through all of the preceding steps and have clearly outlined respective responsibilities. All you have to do is point to your personal workflow and explain that there’s simply no room left to maneuver in order to hit your targets.

You can also lean heavily on task management tools, forcing informal conversations through the mechanisms of the original SOW and change control processes. That way, it looks less like you’re turning down an individual ask, and more like the ask itself is just incompatible with the overall project trajectory.

7. Protect your team against “Gold plating”

Finally, while we might think scope creep is something that’s always imposed upon us, that’s not always the case.

Protect your team against Gold plating

“Gold plating” happens when someone works on a product or task beyond the point of diminishing returns—in other words when you keep messing with something even after it’s hit the brief because you think you might be able to offer some value-add.

It’s a risky proposition, though, because you could miss the mark, rendering all of that extra work pointless. We all hit a point of diminishing returns on projects. And continuing to spend time beyond what was agreed-upon doesn’t guarantee a better result.

This shouldn’t happen if the whole team is clear on what “success” looks like, as well defined in the SOW. But it does happen. When you see a task or issue go over its estimated time, talk to the teammate and try to understand what’s going on. Was the estimation off? Or are they simply falling victim to perfectionism?

No one likes a creep.

Like so many other workplace issues, avoiding scope creep requires clear communication, managing expectations, a healthy respect for boundaries, and a well-defined path to the desired outcome. Making these a priority upfront will save a lot of time, energy, money, and eye-rolling from you and your team along the way.