Scope creep: 6 ways to win against the scariest villain in project management

Scope creep

Nobody likes a creep. And if you ask any seasoned project manager, the worst kind of creep comes in the form of scope creep. It’s the last thing they’d want to encounter in a dark alley late at night. Because the next morning, you might be dealing with an entirely different kind of beast: a project that’s out of control. 😱

While scary, scope creep can always be fought. Prevented. Sent back to the darkest depths of project management hell.

But before we dive into exactly how we can fight this villain, you first need to understand it.

Grab the holy water – here we go.

What is scope creep?

A project should come with a set of requirements and deliverables. This is what we refer to as project scope (more on this later!). But if that doesn’t exist, a project might go well beyond what it’s set out to do – both in size and budget – as people add more tasks and deliverables to the to-do list. This is scope creep.

The repercussions of scope creep are terrifying, to say the least. You could be looking at project delays, resource allocation issues, a budget that gets blown out of the water – you name it. With scope creep in the mix, the chances of project success will soon be a distant memory.

And beware – scope creep sometimes goes by other names, such as requirement creep or feature creep. *shudders*

Scope creep can rear its ugly face in any type of project, but why exactly does it happen?

Why does scope creep happen?

The terrifying truth behind scope creep is this: project goals, scope, and procedures, were never properly in place or not understood by project stakeholders.

Typically it doesn’t come down to one single thing, but a combination of factors that haunts the project.

Scope creep in the form of Beetlejuice saying "It's showtime"

5 of the most cunning causes of scope creep

1. There’s no project scope

A project without a project scope is impossible to manage. That’s why first of all, it’s important to understand what project scope is.

Project scope refers to detailed documentation covering all aspects of a project including goals, timelines, tasks, resources, and project deliverables. The scope exists to set boundaries, help deliver projects on time, manage expectations, and keeps stakeholders aligned.

With a well-defined scope, everyone involved in the project can stay on the same page throughout the project lifecycle.

The project scope also identifies and establishes the control factors which are used to tackle any changes in the project. With no project scope, project managers can’t make informed decisions, and as a result, the risk of project failure increases.

We’re telling you, it’s scary stuff!

2. Project objectives are missing

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. That’s how the saying goes. And projects are no different. If you haven’t established goals and objectives for your project, how will you:

  • Determine the tasks and deliverables
  • Identify the people and resources that are the best fit for the project
  • Know when the project is complete

Without a clear path to project success, scope creep is inevitable. Because all of a sudden, everything will seem important and the scope will grow out of control at a frightening pace.

Read: Project management tactics that drive project success

3. Poor communication 

Poor communication is often rooted in a lack of clarity. If your project scope and objectives haven’t been clearly defined, it’ll result in confusion and poor communication.

That’s why you should make sure your project documentation includes the brief, scope, and any other documentation necessary to keep stakeholders informed and aligned.

But effective communication is not just about what you’re communicating – it’s about when you’re communicating. For example:

  • Communicate the project scope at the very start of the project
  • Share progress and how you’re tracking against project goals throughout
  • Evaluate project performance with all stakeholders at the end

To avoid any ghastly surprises, bigger projects should have a clear communication plan in place. That plan includes ownership, points of contact for different areas of responsibility along with what, how, and when to communicate.

4. No resource allocation plan

Resource allocation is simply the process of managing resources to meet a project’s needs. It’s about figuring out who does what, and when. And trust us, it can make or break a project. 

Now, this is an extra cunning one. It can creep up on a project without anyone noticing. Because if you don’t have a resource allocation plan in place, you might find yourself giving people tasks that aren’t really part of the scope or tied into any of the project’s goals. 

If your project needs are unclear, your resource needs will be unclear. You don’t just want dead bodies on a project, you want the right people working on the right things.

Teams first, tasks second – that’s what great resource management is all about.

Read: The complete guide to resource allocation in project management

5. Ineffective project scheduling

Unrealistic project scheduling can take down the most well-scoped-out projects in no time. Typically it comes down to a clash between expectations and reality. By having a solid resource allocation strategy in place from the get-go, you’ll be able to schedule your resources more effectively and meet project milestones.

It’s simply about making sure your team’s availability and skillsets match project needs. Once you have a resource allocation plan in place, project scheduling should be a breeze!

Read: Project scheduling 101: Your guide to project success

So what happens if scope creep gets a hold of your project?

The victims of scope creep

Scope creep doesn’t show any mercy. Once you’re on its hit list, things are not looking good for you. Here’s what’s at stake.

Scope creep in the form of a grim reaper, digging a hole for its project manager victims in the woods.

R.I.P project managers

If scope creep was a movie, project managers would be killed off first. Because who takes on all the stress? That’s right, PMs. Dealing with stakeholders and trying their best to field the very requests that’ll probably result in scope creep is sure to send PMs to their graves.

Death of team morale

You know what happens once the project manager has been eliminated. No one is safe. Because when things don’t go according to plan, and especially when they don’t go according to plan consistently, morale suffers. And once morale is gone, it’s hard to get it back. Your team is your greatest asset, you want to make sure they have clarity in their roles and stay motivated throughout. If team morale dies, so does the project.

Cursed client relationships

If you’re working with a client, rather than on an internal project, you’re running the risk of destroying the relationship with your client. 

Plus, scope creep doesn’t just affect one project – it will impact other projects, too. If one project takes longer, you may have to push back the start date of other projects. All of a sudden you’ll find yourself in a vicious cycle. And forecasting? Forget about it. Scope creep has you in its nasty grips already.

Sure, scope creep causes stress for your project and everyone involved, but there’s more at stake here. Worst case scenario you lose both revenue and a client.

Exhausted resources

Even if you did have a resource plan in place, chances are scope creep has ruined it. Resources might now be exhausted, overworked, or even burnt out. People are the most important asset for any project, and they should be treated as such. Most projects will require some extra hours here and there, but you should never let that become the norm. Happy team members lead to better project outcomes, period.

Scope creep sure sets out to kill, but there are ways to stop it. You don’t have to be next on the hit list.

6 ways to win against scope creep

There are plenty of ways to get ahead of scope creep. The key? Control. Here are six ways you can stay in control of your project throughout its lifecycle and say goodbye to scope creep – for good.

1. Define project goals

As a project manager, it’s your job to keep the project on track and achieve its goals. And guess what? Lack of clarity kills. Without clear project goals, it’s impossible to know exactly what the project needs in order to hit those goals. As a result, you’ll end up with scope creep. But with project goals set, you know exactly what resources you’ll need, and how much time each task will take. 

2. Establish project scope

This is an obvious one, right? But you’d be surprised how many projects are launched without determining the project scope first. Project scope is not more complex than this: it’s the work required to deliver on the project’s goals and objectives.

Part of the project scope is a scope statement. This part is crucial because it clearly outlines:

  • Project boundaries and team responsibilities
  • Procedures to follow for changing and approving work
  • Guidelines for making any project-related decisions

The Project Management Institute suggests you run a scope statement workshop to avoid being plagued by scope creep.

3. Confirm the project scope with stakeholders

Depending on the project, a lot of time and effort can go into creating a project scope, so the last thing you want to do is make assumptions. Before starting any project, make sure you confirm the scope with all stakeholders. It’s about creating alignment from the beginning. If that alignment doesn’t exist, the likelihood of scope creep is greater.

4. Create a change management plan

If changes to the project scope are uncontrolled, you’ll end up with scope creep. So, what happens when someone wants to make a change? Simple. They have to follow the control procedures documented in your change management plan.

The job of a change management plan is to define the procedures of change. It’ll clearly state what the change control process looks like. Now, this all sounds very bureaucratic, but it’s actually pretty straightforward: Someone suggests a change via a change request, that request is reviewed, and then gets approved or rejected. Scope creep averted!

5. Create a clear project schedule

As we mentioned above, ineffective project scheduling can send a project to an early grave. Project scheduling is about methodically assigning the right people to the right tasks based on skills and availability.

In order to do that, you first need to know who’s available and what their skills are. A resource management tool will help you do that effectively, but if you’re on a budget, this free resource planning and scheduling template will help you run your projects smoothly.

Read: 3 barriers to effective resource scheduling and how to overcome them

6. Have a resource management plan in place

A solid resource management plan will help you prevent scope creep by accounting for all resources required for a project. That includes people, workspaces, tools, equipment, and any other resource imaginable.

Your resource management plan will define exactly how your resources will be allocated and managed. This way, you can stay on top of allocation and utilization throughout the project’s lifecycle. If your resources are overutilized, you could be dealing with scope creep! 

Read: 5 ways to solve resource overallocation

How to fight scope creep when it happens

Sometimes scope creep does just that – it creeps up on you. But that doesn’t mean your project is doomed. If you catch it in time, you can free yourself from its deadly claws – and move on like nothing ever happened. (Sort of.)

A project manager in the form of a zombie, stumbling their way out of the woods after falling victim to scope creep.

Understand your client

It goes without saying, but if you understand your client, you’ll understand what the actual project goal is. To clients, a project is often more than “just” a project. Try and understand why the project is so important to them. That’s when you’ll truly know what motivates them. This will help you communicate better with them, and understand how to stay aligned throughout the project’s lifecycle. 

Understand the project goal

With your eyes peeled on the project goal, you’ll spot scope creep from miles away. Plus, once you understand your client’s motivations (their why) it’s much easier to understand project goals and manage them accordingly. Instantly, things will be a lot less scary!

Stay vigilant

As a project manager, you’re the one saying yes and no to new requests. Log changes and stick to the change control processes you’ve put in place. If a new request comes in, ask yourself if and how it would contribute to achieving the project goals. 

It can be hard to say no when you’re working with a client, and sometimes they won’t take no for an answer. That’s fine. So what do you do? You put a price on the scope creep. Make sure your client fully understands the implications of their request.

After doing so, you might find the request wasn’t that important after all…

Be transparent

Great project management starts – and ends – with great communication. As soon as you see scope creep happening, bring it up with your clients and your team. Only once everyone’s aware of what’s going on can you analyze the impact and assess whether these are changes you actually want to make.

Say goodbye to scope creep for good

Even the best project managers have been forced to face their fears and tackle scope creep head-on. But by staying vigilant, you don’t have to be its next victim. Your project scope is your greatest weapon in the fight against scope creep. So don’t “set it and forget it,” but rather, revisit and repeat it – and do so often. With your scope statement always top of mind, you can say goodbye to scope creep for good.

Fight scope creep with a resource management tool

Have complete visibility of people, resources, and schedules (in a non-creepy way) with Resource Guru.

Like the sound of life without scope creep?