Imagine this: You and your team are hard at work on a huge project and are crushing the deliverables right on schedule. Everything’s on track, things are going smoothly, all is well — until it’s not. 

Suddenly, your client sends you an email asking you to add a deliverable to the original plan. One extra task won’t delay the entire project, so you agree. Then, the emails keep coming, and before you know it your team is in the weeds — and your project is derailed. 

Welcome to the dreaded scope creep — it’s just about as scary as it sounds. No one wants to experience it, but it can happen to even the best project managers. But if you understand what the top causes are ahead of time, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your projects on track. 

Let’s dive into what scope creep is, what can cause it, and how you can avoid it. 

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What is scope creep?

Your project scope is an outline of all the necessary requirements and deliverables your team needs to complete in order for the project to be successful. It’s one of the first things you define as you plan your project and build out your roadmaps and briefs. 

When the deliverables and requests start to exceed the project scope you set at the beginning, that’s when scope creep rears its ugly head. 

Like we mentioned before, an extra task here and there won’t necessarily harm your project. But when significant, scope creep can prevent your team from focusing on critical objectives and ultimately cause the project to be unsuccessful. 

Top 5 causes of scope creep

The best way to keep your project successful and on track is to get familiar with the most common causes of scope creep — and how you can make sure they don’t happen to your team. 

1. Lack of project scope 

If you don’t know the scope of your project, you can’t properly align with your team on what work needs to be done. And if you’re working with an external agency, you won’t have a reference point for when stakeholders request additional deliverables. 

The best way to avoid this common cause is to make an effort to define your project scope at the very beginning. Add it to all early documentation of the project plans so you have proof of the scope in as many places as possible. 

Then, communicate it clearly to your team early so there’s plenty of time to resolve any misalignment before everyone hits the ground running. 

2. Unclear objectives 

Your objectives are the achievements and assets that define the success of your project. And if they’re not clear, your team will have a much tougher time understanding what tasks contribute to the ultimate goal. 

In order for your team to focus their efforts on high-priority activities, you need to provide clear objectives so they know exactly what to prioritize and when. Here’s an example of the difference: 

Unclear objective: Elevate our social media presence to include eye-catching content. 

Clear objective: Design five buckets of unique social media templates that can be used to increase social media presence, including customer quotes, engagement questions, video content, and helpful tips, and infographics. Test two different formats for each bucket to see which one performs best on our social media channels and closely monitor engagement on each post to see which pieces of content we should focus on moving forward. 

3. Too many cooks in the kitchen 

With too many stakeholders on a project and no clear project owner, responsibilities and work can get jumbled and confusing — creating an opportunity for scope creep to strike. 

Of course it’s normal for multiple team members to collaborate, but every project should have a lead that holds responsibility for pushing things along. 

To better understand the different roles in a project, you can build a RACI matrix: 

  • Responsible: This is the lead who drives the project and makes the most important decisions.
  • Approver:  You may need approval from other stakeholders who set things like budget, objectives, and tone. 
  • Consulted: These are the people who provide opinion, insights, and guidance. They’re usually experts in the field. 
  • Informed: The informed role is filled by those who need to know the details of your project. It can include your project team, cross-departmental stakeholders, and executives. 

4. Lack of change-control processes

Change control processes come into play when you need to modify important project factors, like your scope. Your stakeholders shouldn’t simply make the necessary changes — instead, they should follow the change-control process that includes rules that guide the decisions on any project changes that need to be made. 

Typically, these processes require team members to submit change requests, which then go to the project manager for approval. They also typically include a way for the project manager to decide whether or not to accept or deny the request. 

Implementing this process gives you the ability to take back control of the project while also adding a little cushion in case changes are absolutely necessary. 

5. Last-minute client feedback

When working on things like new product launches, marketing campaigns, or feature releases, client feedback is critical to shaping the project’s objectives. But if you don’t collect that feedback in time, last-minute insights could completely derail the objectives, scope, and timeline of your project. You could find yourself scrambling to change the priorities, or even worse, starting over from scratch. 

We all know things happen, and sometimes you won’t be able to prevent the last-minute responses that require you to change large chunks of the initiative, and that’s OK. But to reduce the likelihood of this occurrence, is to get proactive about collecting client feedback ahead of time. Make it a regular practice to actively listen to your clients by looking at reviews, conducting surveys, and using things like NPS scores to get feedback in real-time. 

What to do when scope creep strikes 

As much effort as you put into preventing scope creep, it’s likely you’ll experience it eventually. Luckily there are a few things you can do to course-correct. First, remind stakeholders of the project scope if they’re pushing for more deliverables — remind them what was included so they can realign with the rest of the team on the project’s goals. 

If you’re still feeling the scope creep, have them through your change-control process. Review the requests and decide if it’s worth making a few modifications. If so, consider de-prioritizing another task that can possibly be delayed or even cut to make way for the new objective. 

Not seeing any current work that can be deprioritized? Use your resource management plan to try and identify any available resources that can be used to achieve all the goals of the project. 

Harvest makes it easy to keep track of projects and identify any potential scope creep before it becomes an actual problem. Get started with a free trial today.