Strategies to Combat Common Causes of Scope Creep

By: Amy Baugh

Change is inevitable.  As a project manager, I can’t think of a single project whose final deliverables are perfectly aligned with the initial intent and understanding.  Every project will have one or more curveballs.  The art of project management is in anticipating and adjusting to those inevitable changes.  This blog post will identify four common areas of scope creep and strategies to help you combat “the creep”.  Use these strategies to keep your projects on track and to help ensure successful project delivery.

First, let’s align on nomenclature and definitions:

Scope Creep Slow, the progressive uncontrolled expansion that happens unofficially over course of the project without adjustments to time, cost, and resources.

Gold Plating: Uncontrolled “improvements” made with the best intentions by the team. (for instance, a software developer who says – “hey – we are in the code anyway, this other feature would be really cool, might as well add it” The developer thinks they have the best interest of the customer at hand, but this adds unnecessary complexity and therefore risk, and goes outside of the actual requirements)

Scope Change: An official, documented decision made by the project manager and the project sponsor to change or add features or functionality.  Typically results in the need to adjust budget, timeline, and/or resources.

In summary – scope creep and gold plating are bad and will derail your project; scope change is expected and needed to manage expectations and to ensure deliverables are realistic and aligned.

OK, so given that Scope Change is inevitable, how do you as a project manager work to avoid scope creep and ensure change is done in a controlled way?  The first step is to ensure you have a formal change process. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be something as simple as this:

 

Identify Change -> Impact Analysis -> Review Change Request -> Approve/Reject Change -> Implement Change

The first step, and the step we will focus on here, is how to proactively identify change.  There are four typical areas that tend to introduce the most change:

  • Ambiguous Scope Definition
  • Lack of Key Stakeholder Engagement
  • Lack of Formal Change Process
  • A Long Project Timeline

We will explore strategies for handling changes related to these areas below.

 

1. Ambiguous Scope Definition

To tightly control scope, do not fall into the common pitfall of jumping right into execution.  Take the time for proper planning and stakeholder alignment and confirm deliverables and expectations upfront in your project.  There are several strategies to accomplish this:

  • Tight definition of project scope in the project charter (Link to project initiation blog from May “Setting Your Project Up for Success?)
    • The project charter should clearly define project objectives, scope/deliverables, timelines, budget, resources, and risk
    • The project charter should be reviewed with and agreed upon by the project sponsor and any key stakeholders
  • Consider what is IN scope as well as what is OUT of scope (and clearly outline what is out of scope)
  • Define work into work packages using a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
    • The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a way to breakdown the actual work to be delivered into manageable pieces; it gives a visual depiction of the work to be delivered in an organized way, typically by
  • Clear definition of requirements, with traceability back to project objectives as detailed in the project charter. If you have requirements that don’t tie back to project objectives, it may be time to have a discussion on if they are truly requirements.

 

2. Lack of Project Sponsor/Key Stakeholder Involvement

Lack of project sponsor or key stakeholder engagement can kill your project.  A typical scenario can happen when a sponsor decides they are too busy to be involved, but then at the last hour jumps in and a project doesn’t meet their expectations.  Enter scope creep from stage left!  You can avoid this by effectively engaging with your stakeholders with these strategies:

  • Hold regular status update meetings.
    • Have your key stakeholders identify a workable day/time/cadence
    • Don’t accept these meetings being canceled due to them being “too busy” – ask for a replacement time if cancellations happen.
  • Written communication is not enough – it is important to have regular, transparent communication about the status, risk, issues, and key decisions needed with your key stakeholders. Focus on where you need stakeholder support, input, or awareness. Continually seek to confirm you are meeting (or exceeding) your stakeholder’s expectations
    • One of my favorite questions to ask my key stakeholders is “what’s keeping you up at night?” or another, “What other information would be helpful to you in order to make an informed decision on XYZ”. The focus is to have open dialogue and engagement.
  • Involve your sponsor and a key stakeholder informal review and approval of any changes.
    • A formal change request effectively updates the charter; there should be agreement on changes and the resulting impact to timeline, cost, scope

3. Lack of Formal Change Process

If you don’t have a formal change process in place, your project will turn into the “Wild West” and you will lose all control.  Establishing a formal change process like the one highlighted early in this blog post will help ensure you maintain control.

  • Define and come to an agreement on how changes will be reviewed and approved (and by who)
    • Discuss and agree upon this upfront in the project, ideally at the same time as the charter review.
  • Use the project charter as the baseline for what is to be delivered. This then becomes the “source of truth” when considering any scope change. With a clear charter, change conversations become a lot easier! Again, the goal is to remove ambiguity.

 

4. Long Project Timeline

A fourth area that is sure to result in significant scope creep is having a long project timeline.  Priorities change over time, so with a long project timeline, requirements and sometimes even objectives may begin to shift.  Again, as a project manager, you want to keep change controlled and stay laser-focused on achieving agreed-upon objectives and deliverables.  It is OK if priorities change, but there are real impacts to cost, timeline, and resourcing; big change can’t just “be absorbed” – plans must be adjusted.  Here are some strategies to help ensure measured, controlled project delivery when dealing with a multi-year project:

  • Break the project down into smaller sub-projects
    • Each sub-project would then have its own charter and requirements traceability.
  • Closeout sub-projects along the way to show measurable progress. By doing this, even if additional scope gets intentionally added over time, you will be able to demonstrate completion and success of initial deliverables without it getting buried.
  • As with each of the areas of scope change, following the formal change process will ensure controlled scope change and help avoid “surprises” where the project falls off track.

 

In summary, scope change is inevitable; the success of your project will depend on how you manage it.  Follow the tips outlined in this blog to combat common areas where the change is introduced.  Following these strategies will allow you to maintain control, manage stakeholder expectations, and ultimately deliver the expected benefits of your project.

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