Managing and preventing scope creep: a guide for IT consultants

Managing scope creep

The best-managed projects are those that have clearly defined scope. Scope creep occurs when ambiguity takes over, communications are poor and the standard of project management slips. It can affect companies on both an operational and a strategic level.

We’re going to cover the following in this guide to make sure your next project has the best chance of success: 

  • How to manage scope creep
  • How to prevent it from happening

What is scope creep?

Scope creep occurs when the scope of a project or piece of work expands and becomes less manageable, without the necessary resources assigned to complete the project. Ill-defined objectives and deliverables, growing client demands and an overworked team are just a few of the symptoms of scope creep.

To ensure full control of your project from start to finish, it’s good to start out knowing the following things:

  • What the end product or service will look like
  • What it will deliver
  • How much time it will take to create
  • How much money it will cost

Effects of scope creep

The effects of scope creep can be extremely detrimental, impacting team morale, client relations and the bottom line. As the parameters of a project expand without proper planning and resource to bridge the gaps, the negative impact becomes clearer to see. Here are a few of the worst consequences:

Exceeding budgets

While a little flexibility in a budget can be a very positive thing, budgets that are exceeded by too large a margin make for very bad business. Overstretched budgets and diminishing profits are perhaps the most serious outcome.

Rescheduling or missing deadlines

If your team has given it their all but deadlines pass unmet, or are rescheduled, it’s both expensive and disheartening. A sense of momentum and productivity is key to keeping people motivated and involved, ready to give their best to the job. Constant rescheduling of work may compromise this.

Impact on relationship with client/employer

When a client has unrealistic expectations or their demands are escalating, your attitude to them will shift. And, however much you try to hide it, these negative feelings will impact relations. Similarly, when a client has entered into work in an optimistic frame of mind but scope creep has added a layer of toxicity to the relationship, this will soon show in how they relate to you and your team.

Main causes of scope creep

Mismanagement of scope and project requirements

As far as possible, the scope of work and the deliverables themselves should be clearly defined from the very beginning. Too often, assumptions are made, with clients and service-providers each believing they’re on the same page when in fact their expectations are wildly different. Some scope creep examples include:

  • Clients’ needs expanding. Sometimes a client’s desires for a project will mushroom as work progresses, putting ever greater pressure on both the team and the budget.
  • Overpromising. Sometimes an individual within a team can unintentionally initiate scope creep by overpromising or utilising resources and eating into profits.

How to overcome mismanagement: Communication and clear boundaries are required to prevent this sort of scope mismanagement, and to prevent unrealistic budget expectations in the future. 

An absent or uninvolved client

One major cause of scope creep is the client who throws down the brief, barks a few instructions and then excuses itself from the workflow. The result is a team left guessing what’s required of them, unable to make satisfying or profitable progress despite their best efforts.

Too often, a client who is time-poor will attempt to delegate full responsibility for a project to a supplier, overlooking the possibility that work can balloon out of control. The team flounders, trying to fill in gaps it’s not really their responsibility to fill. 

How to overcome absent clients: effective project management is the answer, with timelines set and an agreement to meet milestones.

Ill-defined timeframes

Time is money in business and it sometimes happens that while the work to be delivered is well-defined, the time it will take to complete is a nebulous concept. With neither the client nor the project manager prepared to impose time limits, weeks stretch into months leaving plenty of time for projects to morph into one thing, then another, sometimes entirely changing their specifications along the way. This is a costly way to operate and one that can leave those involved frustrated. 

How to overcome ill-defined timeframes: set out a clear timeline from the start and stick to it.

Scope creep and agile working

If a team has adopted the agile working approach, a little scope creep can be incorporated and managed more effectively. Agile working means iterating as you go, changing and adapting to an original brief that’s as fluid as the working method itself. Details are allowed to be hazy because, at the start of a project, it’s believed they’re not possible to define. However, it’s important that the quantity of work completed (in terms of hours and days) should be set – additional work means scope creep has taken over.

How to prevent scope creep

Follow these simple but effective tips to preventing scope creep in your business.

Create a detailed scope of work plan from the outset

It’s easy to assume when working with broad ideas and rough estimations that everyone involved has the same general idea of a job in mind. Be specific and clearly set out a project’s purpose and goals.

Communicate openly and take a proactive approach

From the very start of a piece of work, be sure to communicate clearly with everyone involved. If you suspect things are starting to slide, be proactive in reining them back, and re-establishing roles and objectives.

Be flexible, but not too flexible

This is a tricky thing to do, but balance is key. Adopt enough flexibility to accommodate reasonable requests and manageable change, but not so flexible that you lose control of time or money.

Recognise where scope creep works

Sometimes, a little scope creep can be a good thing. In commercial terms, it could mean new opportunities so embrace it where appropriate.

As a contractor, one of your most important skills should be managing the work that comes your way. Avoiding the impact of scope creep is essential, but you also need to protect yourself against financial or reputational loss should client relations reach breaking point. The wisest contractors, as well as being perceptive in the face of scope creep, mitigate for dangers that are yet to arise.