What Causes 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. 

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 how to identify and avoid scope creep — before it happens.

Table of Contents

What is Project Scope?

When you decide to tackle a new project, the first thing you do is create a plan. Project scope is part of project planning and involves writing down the goals, project deliverables, costs, and other points related to the project. 

In a project scope, you outline everything, from the deadlines, the responsibilities of different members, quality control measures, and the total cost of the project.

The scope of a project is, in essence, a guide to the project for the team and the clients, and is often included in the contract. It helps everybody to be focused on their tasks and gives clients a tangible schedule for the completion of the project.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep is when a project’s requirements and deliverables stretch beyond the initial vision. In project management, scope creep is one of the leading causes of failure. It occurs when new requests flow in that involve additional revisions, remakes, re-designs, and additional requirements.  

There are numerous reasons why scope creep arises, most notably poor communication between project stakeholders, and a lack of initial identification of what’s needed to secure the project objectives.

Example of Scope Creep

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Here’s an example of scope creep in action:

Imagine that you and your team are working on a WordPress launch site for a client. The site needs to have a homepage, an about page, and a small online store. The deadline for completing this is just three weeks. Although this is a short deadline, nonetheless, you and your team are confident that you’ll have the website up and running in time. 

After all, you’ve created WordPress websites in the past and you know exactly what and how long you’ll need to complete the project. There are no glaring challenges and you have all the necessary tools and resources that you’ll need, based on the project scope that was initially determined

However, a week into the project, the client requests more features and additional functionalities on the site. At first, they’re just asking for a small adjustment that you’re able to incorporate within the existing project scope. But, they then ask for larger changes, such as an expanded store, adding a blog to the site, customizing their logo, SEO services, and creating more pages that weren’t included in the original agreement.

Before you know it, the project scope has gone from a ‘small WordPress site with online store’ to a full-blown site with tons of features and pages. Unfortunately, you’re no longer able to complete the project before the three-week deadline. 

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

What Causes Scope Creep?

Here are several common and avoidable causes of scope creep:

1. Lack of Planning

Not planning for additional requests is one of the main causes of scope creep. If the original contract stipulated how to handle these new requirements (i.e. increasing the deadline, increasing the cost, hiring additional personnel, etc.), then these won’t pose a problem, and cannot be considered scope creep.

But, assuming that the project will proceed without changes inevitably results in not being able to handle them when they do occur.

2. Lack of Communication

Lack of communication is another 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.

3. Too Many Revisions

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. This particular practice of working on a project past its point of diminishing returns is often called gold plating.

4. Poorly Defined Project Scope

A poorly defined project scope could be fatal for your project’s success. If your team members, project managers, and other stakeholders aren’t clear on the project’s requirements and deliverables, then it’s inevitable there’ll be a breakdown at some point.

Where to Expect Scope Creep

Scope creep can occur at any point during a project, but there are a few stages where you should be extra vigilant

  • 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.

How To Avoid Scope Creep

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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.

Take Control of the Project and Avoid Scope Creep

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!