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Scope creep…the phrase itself conjures up something insidious and sneaky. And that’s how project scope creep happens—it sneaks up suddenly to hit you and your project where it hurts.

Project managers should be aware of the risks when increasing or changing scope to avoid nasty surprises. 

What Is Scope Creep?

Scope creep occurs when the deliverables or features on a project expand from what was originally agreed upon—but the project schedule or budget doesn’t adjust to accommodate the change.

This differs from a scope change, which involves any official decisions made to modify the original scope of a project—its objectives, budget, deliverables, timeline, responsibilities, or other elements.

Scope creep can affect any fixed-scope project. It can happen either intentionally or unintentionally, and it can originate from any number of stakeholders involved in a project.

The reason we care so much about scope creep is that it can lead to project failure. Scope creep may cause you to miss a deadline, burn through (or exceed!) your budget with cost overruns, and, on top of that, still deliver the wrong thing. Yikes!

3 Types of Scope Creep

Scope creep can come in several different flavors. Here are some common causes of scope creep:

  • Failure to make and/or document decisions: stakeholders frequently change their minds or are unable to come to a consensus on project scope due to shifting organizational priorities
  • Overly optimistic project estimates: the team underestimates the level of effort required to complete project tasks and hit milestones, and therefore overpromises on what is part of the scope of the project (in execution, this can sometimes manifest as toxic positivity)
  • Gold plating: adding unnecessary features to the product that were not part of the original requirements.

Who Causes Scope Creep?

It’s useful to take a look at your project to determine who could be causing scope creep. Identifying scope creep early helps you formulate the best approach for addressing the issue.

PS: Is a scope creep haunting your project?

Project Team Member

Sometimes, project team members can cause scope creep. Possible reasons include:

1. The team member is unclear on project scope

At the beginning of the project, outline any requirements or project deliverables in a scope statement (you’ll find a template at that link), project plan, or work breakdown structure (WBS), and make sure team members familiarize themselves with this documentation. 

If scope is being set, involve the team in these conversations as much as possible. If that’s not feasible, at minimum, hold a project kickoff meeting to ensure alignment. During execution, conduct regular team check-ins to keep everyone on the same page.

2. The team member wants to develop what they want, rather than what’s in scope

Involving your team in setting the scope is useful to get buy-in for what they’ll design and build. Make sure everyone is working as a team. If someone goes off to produce something out of scope on a whim, it creates confusion and potential friction with other team members.

3. The team member makes decisions in a vacuum

Sometimes, a team member chooses a way to solve a problem that has an impact on scope, often without realizing it.

Even adding a half day of extra work to do something slightly different could impact the rest of your project. For example, if a designer decides to include some functionality on a site (like a search bar) without discussing it with the developer, it could affect the project timeline.

Set yourself up for project success by building a culture of trust and transparency. When someone raises an issue with you directly, share it more broadly if there’s a bigger decision to be made. Get people working together to find solutions to problems. Make sure everyone is in contact (whether face-to-face or remote) regularly. 

Most successful projects originate from teams that work well together.

Internal Stakeholders

Key stakeholders within your organization can influence the scope of a project. They might have a vision for the organization that involves delivering more for your project, or they might want to push a different agenda.

For example, sometimes a client relationship is more important to an organization than staying within scope on your project.

Make sure your internal stakeholders understand what you are trying to deliver and by when. If something would have a knock-on effect on your project, clearly lay out what impact this would have—whether it’s financial, reputational, or something else.

External Users

User testing should (hopefully) be part of your project or product setup. User feedback on a product can influence a course of events that ultimately increases scope. What happens if you get feedback from your users showing something you can’t ignore? Even if it increases your scope, you need to address it.

When you’ve collated results from testing, review them with your team to identify the necessary changes to implement. Prioritize so you understand which changes would have the greatest impact on the user experience. Then, define which changes you can comfortably incorporate without affecting scope.

If any of the necessary changes would mean increased scope, speak to your client or stakeholder. Come prepared with an understanding of what would happen if you decided not to implement the change.

Third Parties

If you are relying on any third parties to deliver your project—whether that’s an external company, third-party API, or content provider—you need to identify the dependencies at project kickoff. Reflect on the impact that these dependencies could have on your project and how they could affect your scope.

For example, what if your content provider sent you content that wasn’t in a format that was easy to implement or upload on your website? Would this add extra time to your schedule? 

You won’t be able to cover every eventuality, but adopting a risk-planning mindset to raise these dependencies with the client at the beginning of a project will help you understand the potential impact before you have a problem on your hands.

Project Manager

We as project managers can sometimes cause scope creep. It is super tempting to try to make things work within your existing budget and time frame, without flagging to your client.

While it can certainly be a difficult conversation to say you can’t do something without a change request, this conversation is a lot easier to have earlier than later in the project life cycle.

If you or your team identify an issue, work through possible solutions. For example, if additional work is necessary, see what can be descoped instead—is there anything you are doing in your project that isn’t needed for the first release? 

Present these options and a recommendation to the client or stakeholder.

Client

We can’t conclude this section without mentioning a key scope creep culprit: your client. Beware of clients or project sponsors adding in “small” requests that gradually build up the original scope, changing their mind, or suggesting new ways to do things that may affect the required level of effort. 

Be honest and upfront with them if they are asking for something that will cause scope creep. Also, frame your responses so that you aren’t simply saying “no,” but rather proposing an alternative. For example:

“This new request is going to have this specific impact on time/budget. We’ve taken a look at the priorities—how about replacing this with that instead? It achieves a similar outcome because…”

2 Scope Creep Examples

Now that we’ve gone over the types and causes of scope creep, we’ll highlight two case studies that show how scope creep can occur on your projects.

Scope Creep Case Study #1

You may think that you’d be smart enough to prevent scope creep before it happens, but then you’d be underestimating what makes scope creep so, well, creepy.

Imagine that you’re working to gather user feedback on how your prototype is performing. You had agreed with your client on how many users you’d talk to, the nature of the feedback you’d accept, and the length of the comment period. You had also agreed to address feedback up to a specific threshold of hours needed to implement any fixes.

Once the comment period closes, the client gets a call from someone senior who wasn’t part of the testing group and asks if you can get this person pulled in. You had imposed a limit on the number of commenters, but how much would it hurt to add one person? Also, you want to leave a good impression with executives, so you agree to the late-breaking addition.

Before you know it, that senior person has added in their entire staff. They want a separate testing walkthrough, and they’re upset that their pet use case has not been included.

While you’re able to stand your ground and prevent a change in requirements, the extra time in negotiation, never mind the additional stakeholder communications to align on project objectives, has eaten up a week and a half on an already tight schedule. Scope creep strikes again!

Scope Creep Case Study #2

It’s also important to recognize that scope creep doesn’t have to stem from a client request.

Imagine that you are a project manager inheriting a project with a classic waterfall setup that includes wireframes and a design phase, followed by development.

You get involved at the beginning of the development phase. The task is straightforward—you’re building the front end on top of a white-labeled backend from another agency.

You had signed off on wireframes and designs and run through everything with the client and agency…what could possibly go wrong? Well! It turns out that the other agency was iterating on their backend build and frequently releasing new code.

Funnily enough, they didn’t account for your agency building on top of the old code, so your code breaks with every release.

To correct this, you decide that the team has to go back through the code and update it to work with the continuous changes from the other agency. This was unaccounted for—but it was necessary.

At first, the extra work involved the odd, small fix on an ad hoc basis, but more and more problems started to occur. Although you raised this with the client, you tried to fold the extra work into your project rather than flagging to the client the need to determine a joint solution before proceeding with the build.

Oh, the benefit of hindsight! What happened? You fell deeper and deeper into redeveloping the existing code—timelines got extended, you missed your deadline, and your agency came under a lot of pressure towards the end of the project. The team was demotivated, the client wasn’t happy, and, in the end, the project was delayed by two months.

How To Avoid Scope Creep

Here are some strategies for reducing the likelihood that scope will creep into your projects:

6 tips to avoid scope creep
Here are 6 tips that will help you avoid scope creep.
  • Clearly define your project scope from the get-go, ideally involving the project team to gain buy-in. Use a statement of work to capture what is in and out of scope. Then, communicate the scope to team members and project stakeholders, including the client.
  • Involve the entire team to create robust estimates based on requirements. To reduce the risk of estimating incorrectly: 1) allocate time for a discovery period to determine what you’ll be building 2) use time and materials, rather than a fixed price, contract and 3) be less prescriptive about the features you’ll build. Focus on desired outcomes.
  • Build in contingency plans to make sure you allocate enough time for QA. Also, consider using automated testing to save time—the articles Pros and Cons of Manual and Automated Testing and Best Automation Tools are useful references.
  • Create a change management plan at the beginning of a project that lays out how you will handle scope changes. If you intend to use change requests, detail the change control process you’ll follow.
  • Collaborate closely with your client during project execution. Show them the project progress or project status report, iterate, and involve them throughout the journey so there are no surprises.
  • Proactively raise issues either as they happen or ideally before they happen (provided you have worked out a solution to address the issue!). Use a risk management plan to document your risk management process. Maintain and review a risk register that keeps track of potential risks.
  • Ask questions to prioritize incoming requests. Make sure these requests don’t inadvertently add scope, duplicate work, or build unnecessary additional features. Engage with the team to understand each request, its impact on the project budget and timeline, and the anticipated user outcome so you can prioritize accordingly.
  • Engage users early. It’s tempting to fool ourselves into thinking that we (the clients, the business, the team) know the users well enough to avoid interacting with them. The reality is that, if you’re not incorporating user feedback early on, you can waste a lot of time going down a path that doesn’t add value. At that point, your scope can spiral.

How To Address Scope Creep

If your project falls victim to scope creep (or you’ve inherited an overly scoped effort), don’t panic. You still have an opportunity to dig yourself out of the hole. 

Here are some steps I’ve followed when inheriting a troubled project that had fallen victim to scope creep:

  • Start by explaining the situation to your client or stakeholder. Explain how you’ve ended up where you are and what your remediation plans are to address the situation. There’s no point in sugarcoating it. You are where you are.
  • Recommend ways you can cut corners without sacrificing value. This might mean deprioritizing certain features, or compromising on “nice to haves” until you can release something as a fast follow. Prepare a presentation for your client that clearly delineates the tradeoffs across each of your approaches.
  • Rightsize the team. This may mean transitioning out someone who is underperforming or substituting out a higher-cost resource for a lower-cost resource to save on budget. It’s unpleasant to have these conversations, but the alternative is potentially losing your client, which has greater ramifications across the organization.
  • Deal with the fallout. Sometimes, righting a sinking ship requires you to swallow your pride and sacrifice overall project profitability to repair a valued client relationship. It may require putting in extra hours to take something over the finish line sooner than planned as a way of making amends. The key is to limit this pain to a short-term endeavor so it doesn’t become a bad habit.

Also, keep in mind that sometimes scope creep can be beneficial. Rather than seeing it as the sneaky enemy, you can simply think of it as change. And, change can be hugely beneficial to the product you’re making. It’s how you manage that change that affects the project—not the request to change it.

You simply need to be careful that you spot it when it happens, especially when it’s not obvious, and raise it before it progresses without any form of replanning.

How To Do Scope Management In Agile

Scope creep typically applies to projects with a fixed scope. What if you’re using an agile methodology?

Well, agile embraces change—and, frankly, so should agile project managers. As one of the core principles of agile states:

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

For example, If you’re working in scrum methodology, when a new requirement comes in, add it to the backlog to prioritize with the product owner and team. If this requirement does make its way into the sprint during the sprint planning meeting, deprioritize something else instead.

The point of agile is to iterate, which means designing, building, testing, learning, and then repeating the cycle. Because agile projects don’t map out the details upfront, it leaves room for change—you can swap one user story for another that requires the same level of effort. Change is what leads to the best possible product in the time you have.

So what counts as scope creep in an agile project? Scope creep could come into play if your product owner fails to deprioritize features or tasks when pulling in a new requirement.

Also, they may fail to weigh the effort needed between the new task and the deprioritized one, which could result in cramming extra effort into an already too-tight cycle.

Make sure that, for any new features entering the backlog, you’re breaking these down into stories and understanding the level of effort to be able to prioritize accordingly.

It’s typically a lot easier to mitigate scope creep in an agile project, precisely because the agile methodology encourages change and factors it into the structure of the methodology itself.

In a waterfall project, your product will likely be built step-by-step until you complete the shiny new thing at the end. This could lead to thinking everything is a priority.

If you don’t have clear priorities among features, it’s hard to understand what to descope when adjustments to project requirements begin to surface.

What Do You Think?

Do you have any examples of scope creep? How did you tackle it? Or have you seen it positively affect a project where you’ve incorporated a change in requirements and ended up with a much better outcome? Let me know in the comments below!

Project management software and other work management tools can be helpful in tracking scope and overall progress toward project goals, so you can catch the early warning signs of scope creep. Also, make sure to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager for more on project scope.

Suzanna Haworth
By Suzanna Haworth

Suze Haworth is a digital project director in London. She has over 14 years experience working in agencies, moving through the ranks from her early days in account management before seeing the light, and realizing her true calling for project management. She now leads teams on all sorts of digital and web builds, ranging from social campaigns and digital media to large and complex websites. Suze has managed projects for clients like the BBC, WaterAid, Channel 4, Esso, Lipton Tea, SEAT and Mozilla, to name just a few. She is a certified Scrum Master, a regular conference speaker, and can also be found posting blogs online.

Sarah M. Hoban
By Sarah M. Hoban

Sarah is a project manager and strategy consultant with 15 years of experience leading cross-functional teams to execute complex multi-million dollar projects. She excels at diagnosing, prioritizing, and solving organizational challenges and cultivating strong relationships to improve how teams do business. Sarah is passionate about productivity, leadership, building community, and her home state of New Jersey.