Project Management

3 Tips for Managing Scope Creep at Your Business

Published by in Project Management

Is scope creep seeping into your projects and wrecking your budgets and deadlines? Fight back with these tips.

Hero image for managing scope creep

It starts quietly and harmlessly, seeping into your project with an added feature here, some gold-plating there. Soon, your project is a week behind schedule, 10% over budget, and seemingly starting to take on a mind of its own.

It’s the project manager’s nightmare that hides in the shadows and strikes when you least expect it: scope creep.

According to PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession report, more than half of completed projects (52%) experienced scope creep or “uncontrolled changes to the project’s scope,” up almost 10% from just five years ago.

Scope creep leads to wasted resources, disappointed customers, and burned out teams. And the larger problem? It’s inevitable because of human nature and the reality of constant change. And despite being an ever-present project management issue, project managers seem by and large unsure of how to deal with it.

In a survey of more than 300 organizations, PM Solutions Research found that “the biggest challenge facing project managers in small organizations was lack of clarity in project scope (44%).”

But scope creep’s inevitability doesn’t mean that it’s an uncontrollable problem you just have to accept or that you should sit back and let it slowly undermine all of your projects.

Business leaders and project managers who acknowledge that scope creep is inevitable but have a plan in place ahead of time for dealing with it can minimize its negative effects.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep is allowing a project to stretch past its originally planned budget and deadline by adding features or other work that hasn’t been agreed upon by all stakeholders.

Scope creep is inherently undesirable. It’s an unwarranted deviation from an established plan and (essentially) the breaching of a project contract without going through the proper channels. But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

What if we’re working on a project together, and you think of a new feature that would really improve it and make the end product more valuable for the customer? Sure, this new idea might push us past our deadline and cost a little more, but can we ever be great if we’re only allowed to steer rigidly toward predetermined outcomes?

Ahh, devil’s advocate, you are a wise and intriguing individual.

That is the rub of scope creep. In certain circumstances, scope creep can improve a project at the cost of delivering on time and on budget. But it’s your job as a project manager to determine when scope creep is acceptable as a net benefit and when you have to put your foot down to preserve the original scope of the project.

How can you manage scope creep?

Let’s look at some strategies to make sure that you keep the upper hand when scope creep rears its ugly head.

1. Use project management software to establish scope

If you’re managing projects by the seat of your pants, it’s easy to let things spiral out of control. Things start off according to the plan you scrawled on a cocktail napkin, but next thing you know your postapocalyptic science fiction film production is $75 million over budget because someone just had to have that artificial seawater enclosure.

Project management software helps you set budgets and deadlines ahead of time, outline features and scope, and stick to your plan with dashboards and reminders.

A screenshot of MS Project 2016 showing portfolio dashboards

A screenshot of MS Project 2016 showing the Projects dashboard (Source)

Here’s how:

At your project kickoff meeting, you and your team determine the project charter, scope, major deliverables, risks, budget, resources, and deadline.

Then, you enter all those numbers into your project management software.

Now, whenever an extra feature is under consideration, you can estimate how much it’ll cost and how long it would take to deliver, then enter those numbers into your software, which can immediately tell you how far over budget and past deadline this extra feature will impact your original plan.

From there, you can go to your customer and let them know not only what feature you’re considering adding and why, but how it will affect the bottom line.

2. Weigh added value against cost and time

Put yourself in the shoes of a project manager overseeing the production of a new crossword puzzle app. The original project plan called for the app to be completed in three months at a total cost of $60,000 with the following minimum viable product (MVP) features:

  • An interface that allows users to enter a clue and number of letters to get possible answers.
  • Android and iOS compatibility
  • Ad-serving functionality for monetization

Now, imagine these two scenarios:

Scenario A: One of your project leads asks for another month of production time and $10,000 added to the budget to add VR headset support to your crossword puzzle app.

Scenario B: One of your project leads informs you that Apple is rolling out an iOS update that will affect the security of your app. If you add a few days to the production schedule at a labor cost of about $1,000, the development team can ensure that your app will work smoothly and securely with the new iOS update.

These examples show that not all scope creep is the same. Scenario A is where a project manager can reign things in and not give in to scope creep, while Scenario B is a situation where the value added is worth the cost.

Though this is an obvious example, you’ll encounter much more nuanced situations on every project.

If you’re having trouble deciding whether to allow scope creep or not in a particular situation, you’ll need to run a cost-benefit analysis. In other situations, you’ll be able to rely on your past experience and ask yourself, “Is the benefit of this additional feature worth delaying the delivery of the project and running over budget?”

3. Stick to the release date, not the plan

Agile project management is all about having a plan, and then being flexible with it.

Managing scope creep means delivering a quality project on time and on budget but allowing for changes along the way.

In “Planning An Agile Project” (full article available to Gartner clients), Gartner’s Nathan Wilson writes:

“Scope creep is handled by filtering and prioritizing the work and doing only the most important items. Setbacks in project progress are handled by reducing the amount of functionality to be delivered, rather than extending the project.”

In other words: Do the work in order of most important to least important. That way, when you’re up against a deadline, you can produce a minimum viable product rather than asking for more time because something as important as the user interface hasn’t been completed yet.

Wilson explains:

“This provides a built-in contingency plan to the project. If development falls behind schedule, an Agile project can deliver less functionality and still make the expected date, budget and quality … because Agile projects deliver the most important functionality first, they always deliver the maximum business value for the time and resources invested.”

As a corollary to this point, in the serendipitous situation that you finish the most important (required) work early and under budget, your team can use the extra time and money to add value to the project by working on additional features.

This is why it’s important to leave slack in the system and plan at 80% capacity.

Your 3 step checklist to manage scope creep

  1. Have a project kickoff meeting to determine the MVP, budget, and deadline, then enter that information into your project management software. Plan at 80% of capacity to get 100% of the planned work done on time.
  2. When scope creep inevitably creeps in, ask yourself: “Is the benefit of this additional feature worth delaying the delivery of the project and running over budget?”
  3. Consider the budget, deadline, and MVP as fixed restraints that you’re working around. Complete the most important work first to ensure that you have a release-worthy product by the deadline.

What are your tips for managing scope creep?

There are two types of project managers in the world: those who struggle with scope creep and those who are in denial.

How do you manage the inevitable when scope creep rears its head? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.

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About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew Conrad

Senior Content Writer @ Capterra, sharing insights about retail. Published in PSFK, Modern Retail, and the Baltimore Sun. Austin transplant. I love spending time outside with my dog or floating on the Colorado River in my inflatable kayak.


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