Scope Creep

11 Causes of Scope Creep & What to Do About Them

Emily BarrLeaders, Management Tips, Project Management


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Scope Creep


11 Causes of Scope Creep & What to Do About Them


Any Project Managers has had to at least at one point face the circumstance where a project started to balloon in size and scope, while its budget and timeline remained the same. Referred to as project scope creep, an unexpected addition to a project’s demands that move past its predetermined limits can cause a serious blow to your team’s success. But, what is scope creep exactly? And how does it get past even the most skilled project manager’s defenses, slowly but surely inflating the scope of a project?  


What Is Scope Creep? 

Scope creep occurs when the scope, deliverables, or features on a project expand from what was originally set, without additional time or budget being accounted for. Simply put, scope creep is about parameters. The scope of a project is always documented beforehand, outlining the project’s boundaries, schedules, and major deliverables. This is usually presented in the form of a Statement of Work. 


How Scope Creep Can Lead to Project Failure 

Scope creep can affect any fixed, measurable parameter set around a project, and it is unfortunately very common. It can occur both intentionally and unintentionally and arise from any number of individuals that are involved in the project. Because of its unpredictable nature, it poses the risk of causing serious harm, and even failure, to a team’s project. Perhaps an increase in needed tasks means the deadline is missed, or new required resources cause you to burn through the entire budget.  

Unaccounted for hiccups in a project’s progress are sometimes unavoidable, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of recognizing key sources of scope creep and implementing practices to avoid them as much as possible.  


11 Causes of Scope Creep & How to Best Deal with Them 


1. Lack of a Clear and Detailed Scope 

Clarity is critical to the success of any project. Without clearly outlining and defining your scope at the beginning, you risk causing major disruptions down the line, and the scope of the project is much more likely to mutate on its own. Stakeholders and even team members can begin defining the scope of the project for themselves, leading to a lack of cohesiveness amongst your team and clients.  

TIP: Ensure that the scope is clear to everyone who will be involved in the project. The Project Scope Statement that goes into the Project Initiation Document is where all the boundaries and parameters of the project should be clearly stipulated. Spend the time finalizing the plan and sharing it among your team so that their expectations are better managed, and so there are no surprises down the line. Involve your team members in setting the scope parameters so they are fully bought into what they are delivering before the work even begins.  


2. Lack of a Client Agreement 

In a similar vein, clarity with the client on what the scope of your project will be is critical. If they are not bought into the exact scope you have in mind, they are likely to change their mind, and hence the deliverables, later on in the process. 

TIP: Clearly communicate the scope with the client, and ensure they have a clear picture both of what it is, and what it isn’t. Sending a completed document outlining the deliverables is not enough. You need to involve them directly, speaking with them and walking them through all the parameters and deliverables thoroughly. Asking questions such as, “Are you clear on what this deliverable is, and what you’ll be getting?”, can be helpful.  


3. Weak Leadership 

While you may have clearly outlined the scope to the client, some may try and change it for themselves to get what they want if they begin to sense that you lack experience, or are not a strong project manager. 

TIP: This cause of scope creep hinges on how your clients are perceiving you. If demands are beginning to inflate the project scope, stand your ground even if it creates some conflict. Communicate strongly during meetings through body language and confident speech. If meetings are being held virtually, be certain to be speaking on camera and presenting the physical plan on screen showing its agreed upon steps clearly. 

Leadership Training

4. Differing Stakeholder Opinions 

While some disagreement may arise between you and the client, others may come up between stakeholders themselves. If too many stakeholders are involved in the project, you risk having differing opinions on how to go about completing the project. Even if their desired end result is unanimous, their motivations could be wildly different, meaning they will have differing opinions on what should be prioritized during project development. With an unclear strategy for project development on the table, you risk altering your timelines almost any time a stakeholder chimes in. 

TIP: Evidently, limiting the number of your stakeholders is the solution to this cause of scope creep. If you need a larger group, try to determine what their motivations are so you can arrive at a common ground for the project. If needed, additional requests from stakeholders that come up during project development can be transferred into a future project instead. 


5. Not Involving the Client Throughout the Project 

Projects are no longer being left in the hands of your company alone to carry out with little communication with the client. Spending months doing the work and only sending the results of the work period to the client for feedback at the end of the timeframe is not sufficient and can result in surprises for the project scope. Finalized work may have to be redone entirely, impacting the project timeline and budget.  

TIP: Aim to collaborate closely with the client throughout each stage of the project. Keep them updated on the work as its still in progress, iterate its status consistently, and proactively involve them in the entire process. 


6. Not Raising Issues Proactively 

If issues come up during project development, it may seem easy to hide behind them and not be transparent with the client or stakeholder. However, this could have serious consequences down the line, since it will come as a surprise to the client and they may change their deliverables unexpectedly in response to it. 

TIP: Even if it is challenging, raise any issues with them right away, when they happen. Ensure you have had time to work through some solutions so you can offer strategies alongside it, which will help ease their worry. 


7. Not Prioritizing Features 

Many projects are laid out in a step-by-step format, meaning each feature involved in project development builds up to the final project. This could lead to the perception that every feature in the process is a priority. Without clear priority set among features, it is hard to recognize which areas can be descoped or scaled back when adjustments to the project’s requirements begin to creep in. 

TIP: Prioritize features of your project’s process by identifying which components are critical for delivering a usable end product. A more agile approach to project management may be necessary, where features that are absolutely necessary for users are top priority, meaning there is a working product that can be used by the client at almost every stage. 


8. Not Agreeing on How to Handle Change 

Change is almost inevitable in every project, so not clearly agreeing on how to best approach it at a project’s beginning will make it extremely difficult to work through when changes to the scope begin to surface. 

TIP: Outline in your Statement of Work how you will handle change should it come up. Change Requests are an option, but if you choose to utilize these ensure you clearly stipulate what falls within, and without, the scope, and how to go about raising a Change Request. 


9. Poor Estimation 

Getting estimation of timeline accurate can be potentially problematic. It is difficult to be accurate and foresee any and all changes to a project at its conception, since there are still many unknowns. Certain things may not get properly accounted for, meaning your team will be tied to additional scope in order to deliver the project. 

TIP: Involve everyone in estimation. Making guesses on your own about where the project could head, and what may surface during its development, is a sure-fire way to oversee critical components you should be accounting for. Rather than estimating based on deliverables, keep in mind the following: 

  • Estimate for a discovery period where you will determine what it is your end product will be – at the end of this period, you will be able to provide a more accurate estimate for the remainder of the project. 
  • Use a Time and Materials pricing model, rather than estimating by a Fixed Price. Actual worked hours on the project are what are billed, so the former can offer much more flexibility. 
  • Avoid specifying the exact features being built and how within the scope – be specific but allow some room for change if needed. 


10. New Requests Not Being Properly Vetted 

During project development, it can be very easy to take on new requests or ideas from clients or team members. They know what they are doing, so many PMs may feel that any and all requests from them are the right path forward. However, if you don’t interrogate all requests properly, no matter how ideal they sound, you could end up duplicating existing work, or constructing unnecessary features without even noticing. 

TIP: Review any and all new requests with the entire team. Ensure each team member has a clear understanding of what the request is, what the impact of incorporating it will be, and the outcome it will have for the client. Then, prioritize the new request, and double check that it is not already being delivered elsewhere in the project. 


11. Not Involving Users Early On 

Without involving your end-users or customers from the beginning of the process, you risk receiving feedback from them that you have never heard before, adding to your list of action items when you have almost reached the end of your timeline. It is tempting to think that your team, clients, and organization understands your users well enough to avoid interaction, but without incorporating user feedback early on, you can go far down a project development route that won’t actually test well with your users.  

TIP: Similar to the involvement of clients and stakeholders, the key here is collaboration. Collaborating with customers early and often means you run much less risk of delivering something they don’t need or want. Keep communication lines open, and if possible, have users using the product as early as possible. If your client or budget holder doesn’t want to fund this effort, work through the benefits with them, and also clearly outline the negative impact of neglecting early user validation.  


Managing Scope Creep in The Right Way 

Scope creep does not have to be the enemy for your project development. At its core, it describes unexpected change. The way you go about managing that change is what ultimately affects your project, not the request to change it. Remaining watchful for when you spot scope creep is critical, especially when it isn’t apparent to the rest of your team, so ensuring you raise it before it spirals should be a given. However, change can actually be largely beneficial to your project, if you leverage it in the right way. The objective of your project should always be to deliver the best possible product or service you can, so if that objective requires a change in parameters every now and then, you as a project manager need to lead the way for adapting to that. 


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