What Is Scope Creep? (And How to Prevent It in 3 Easy Steps)

We've all experienced this before: you start a new project, it begins to expand beyond its initial plans, more and more tasks keep getting piled on until you ultimately miss the deadline. How can you prevent this from happening? Here's our essential guide to preventing scope creep.

What if something could cause the death of an ambitious website project? Your first thoughts might be that this something could be procrastination, lack of planning, or inexperienced designers. But there’s actually something that’s even more dangerous: scope creep.

When projects overstep their initial goals, more and more tasks keep getting piled on, until the deadline is missed and everyone loses steam. Once this starts happening, it can be difficult to ever recover. Even something with clear goals and deadlines, being worked on by skilled designers, can be ruined.

Are you scared of you or your organization succumbing to scope creep? With planning, communication, and tempered expectations, you can stop it in its tracks. Let’s learn exactly how to identify and avoid scope creep – before it happens.

What Exactly is Scope Creep?

When you’re working on a shiny new web design project, it’s easy to get a little over-ambitious. Usually, those kinks get worked out during the planning phase. But when a project begins to expand beyond its initial goals, once you’ve started working, scope creep has taken root.

When you keep adding “just one more thing” to the to-do list, when days are spent on a client’s continued revisions rather than working towards the initial tasks, or when those tasks start shifting to the point of becoming impractical or entirely unattainable – that’s when scope creep is in full effect.

And once scope creep has its hold on your project, you’ve probably wasted hours on things that weren’t pushing you towards the deadline. It’s already too late to turn back.

What Does it Look Like?

Here’s an example of scope creep in action: you and your team are working on a WordPress launch site for a client. It needs to have a homepage, an about page, and a small store, and the deadline is in three weeks.

This definitely seems doable, and you all get to work. You draw out the designs of each page, decide what plugins you’ll need, and start working.

But then, the client begins asking for more. It might be unnoticeable at first, with just a request for a small contact page or a few design revisions. But then they want to expand their store, add a blog, a custom logo, SEO services, a social media account, several more pages – all things that weren’t in the initial agreement. 

The scope of the project has expanded from “small site with a store” to “full website launch package.” And before you know it, that deadline has come and gone.

That’s the sinister thing about scope creep: it usually starts small, so you don’t notice until it’s too late.

Where to Expect Scope Creep

When you’re working on a project with multiple people involved, scope creep could prove inevitable. But as a web or WordPress designer, there are a few areas where you should expect to encounter it.

  • During the initial planning phase, when trying to lay out a list of reasonably attainable goals.
  • After sending something to a client, they may ask for more revisions and additions than you have time for, or for revisions that would take too long to do.
  • When someone is left out of the planning process, they may come in later to ask for changes.
  • Mid-project, allowing an unlimited number of tasks to be added to the schedule, can make the project begin to look a lot less realistic.
  • When the planning is over, and you’re hard at work on the assignment, with less correspondence going on, the client will have time to come up with more ideas.
  • Once one deadline is missed, it’s easier to let it slip a little more and pile on to the problem.
  • Right as you’re about to wrap up the last few tasks, someone is bound to say, “But what if we added…?”

In short, scope creep can crop up at any phase of a project, but if you’re already anticipating its arrival, it can be much easier to guard against.

What Causes Scope Creep?

Though scope creep is a dangerous threat to any undertaking, it does have a few avoidable causes. The first is a lack of planning. Diving right into the design process is not a good idea. You’re bound to encounter scope creep when you haven’t defined scope in the first place.

On that note, you need to have a clear set of milestones and tasks to follow. That could be anything from a simple list to a carefully laid out schedule. Without your goals set in stone, it’s easy for you to lose sight of what you’re ultimately trying to create.

Lack of communication is the other significant cause of scope creep. Sometimes a project is just between you and a single client. Other times, the client is an entire company, and that means there’s a lot of higher-ups who will want to have a say in the design. Whoever you may be working with, poor communication often leads to expectations getting out of control.

Even if you’re just doing this by yourself, it’s good to figure out what you want and lay it out clearly as a set of tasks with a deadline.

Last: Piling on too many revisions can kill a web design project. Every site is going to need a few changes as you try to capture the client’s vision, but when it goes too far, it can completely bog down the schedule. These mini-tasks are so small you might not even notice how much time they’re taking, but they can do some serious damage if you don’t keep them under control.

The Impact of Scope Creep

Every schedule needs to account for a little lost time and a few bumps along the way, but scope creep can have a more serious impact than a few mishaps or a handful of small revisions. Once the goals themselves have moved, you’re going to need more time and resources to dedicate to the project than you initially accounted for.

When the scope of your project no longer seems reasonably attainable, it can lead to deadlines missed as you scramble to keep up with the influx of new tasks. Miss too many deadlines, and work will slow down – until eventually, the whole thing gets dropped.

The purpose of goals and tasks is to break up a huge undertaking like creating a website into bite-sized, easily doable pieces. Once a project starts expanding too much, with too many objectives or ones that are just too difficult to reach by the deadline, everyone involved will quickly run out of steam.

It can also lead to upset clients or managers if they ask for more than you can provide and you can’t get it in on time.

Scope creep isn’t always a bad thing; maybe you did hit on a great idea, or perhaps you really do have a little extra time to add some polish before the deadline. Accommodating reasonable client requests will make them happy, and doing so can earn you extra money if you charge for larger revisions (such as a custom dashboard).

But if you don’t manage all these extra ideas, the end result will be anything but positive. The best thing you can do is to avoid scope creep before it starts.

Scope Creep – How to Nip It in the Bud

Scope creep might be dangerous, but luckily, there are some best practices you can follow to avoid it and keep it under control when it does happen. If you’re worried about something going wrong, read carefully as we tell you exactly how to keep these problems from sneaking into your website project and bringing it down.

1. Plan Every Step

Many of the ventures that succumb to scope creep are simply the result of poor planning. Before you so much as sketch out a wireframe you should have at least a few, if not all, of the following things:

  • A paragraph establishing the scope of the project
  • A list of goals and what you need to do to reach them
  • A schedule with deadlines for each goal, as well as an overall project deadline
  • The list of resources you’ll need to complete the project (style guide, logo, etc.)
  • Tasks divvied out to each person on your team
  • A client contract that clearly states how many revisions and additions are allowed before they’ll need to pay more and/or extend the deadline

You can create a document for this info, or use project management tools to help you and your team stay organized.

End date and a list of goals are, at the very least, a must, and a contract is highly recommended as well.

Even if you don’t use a contract, it’s essential to communicate with everyone and make sure they know your policy on sudden additions to the outline and be firm if someone tries to sneak a few extra things in there. If you can’t establish solid goals and boundaries for your project, it’s sure to end in failure.

Some clients may refuse to sign your contract or actively participate in the planning phase. If possible, it’s best to turn down clients like this, as they’re likely to be difficult to work with, asking for numerous time-wasting revisions, and suddenly springing new requests on you out of nowhere. One of the best ways to avoid scope creep is to only work with people who will work with you to fend it off.

2. Get Everyone Involved

Whether you’re working with just your team, a client, or an entire company, you should make sure that anyone who might want any say in how the website turns out is involved from the very start – and that everyone gets a chance to pitch in their ideas or concerns.

If someone ends up being left out and comes in later asking for some big additions, it could completely throw off everyone’s workflow and derail the project. To avoid sudden changes later on, reach out to any stakeholders and make sure they review your plans or ask your client to speak to them. Better safe than completely losing all of your progress when a huge revision is suddenly sprung on you halfway to the deadline.

This also applies if you’re working on a personal project with a small team. While everyone is probably excited to get this site out, unfortunately, anyone on the team could also fall prey to scope creep.

To avoid it, make sure they’ve all been given a task to work on with a deadline. If everyone is focused on their job, that will leave less time to come up with new ideas. They’ll be too busy working! Should anyone get over-ambitious, show them the list of tasks and the schedule, so they’ll understand that there’s just not enough time.

Almost every problem associated with scope creep can be solved with proper planning and better communication.

3. Know How to Manage Scope Creep

What if scope creep has already made its way into your assignment? Sometimes you might not even realize it until it’s already happened. There are still ways to recover if this occurs, especially if you’re the one in direct charge of things. One solution is to dial it back, taking any new objectives that the project has accumulated and giving them the lowest priority, or throwing them out entirely. If you catch scope creep early enough, you might still be able to make your deadline, and complete all of the original tasks. When someone wants to add a goal or change up the existing ones, don’t just say “yes.” Have a change control process in place so that you can review it with your team and ensure that it won’t impact the deadline or their workload. Be ready to turn down revision requests. If they resist, show them your schedule and explain that you won’t be able to meet the deadline. You might also need to pull out your contract. That’s why making planning documents is important!

We must accept that some changes are likely to occur and account for this in the schedule. A little scope creep can even be a good thing if it leads you to a brilliant idea or makes a client happy. It’s only when it gets totally out of control that it does the real damage. Allow some change, but set a hard limit, and don’t be afraid to say “no.”

Every web designer and project manager has experience with scope creep to some extent. When it inevitably happens, look back on it and ask whether it impacted the project positively or negatively, why it happened, and what you could have done to prevent it. This way, you learn from your experience and do better next time.

Learn to Reign in Ideas When They Get Out of Control

If left unchecked, scope creep can severely slow down or even outright kill a project. You need to know how to identify it, so that you can recover when it starts to happen or avoid it altogether.

Planning ahead in detail, creating a web design contract, ensuring that no one important is left out of the planning phase, and being able to rectify the situation when a project gets a little too ambitious, is crucial. With this knowledge, you can keep your goals realistic and get your projects done on time.

Have you ever been part of a project that got out of control? What did you do to reel it back in? Let us know your own experiences in the comments!

About the Author

Nick Schäferhoff
Nick Schäferhoff
Nick Schäferhoff is an entrepreneur, online marketer, and professional blogger from Germany. When not building websites, creating content or helping his clients improve their online business, he can most often be found at the gym, the dojo or traveling the world with his wife.

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  1. Can definitely say I’ve experienced that. Very hard and very time consuming to work with those types of clients.

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