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7 common causes of scope creep, and how to avoid them

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
March 2nd, 2024
8 min read
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Scope creep happens when stakeholders add more deliverables or push back deadlines. This can delay the project timeline, and bring team morale down. But scope creep is preventable. In this article, learn how scope creep happens and what you can do to stop it.

Picture this: you’re hard at work on a project and its deliverables. Suddenly, you get an ask to add another deliverable. It wasn’t in the original plan, but it’s easy enough to do, so you agree. Then, after a few days, another email. Suddenly, instead of being on track, your project is delayed and unsuccessful.

What you’re experiencing is scope creep—and it can happen to the best of us. In this article, you’ll learn all you need to know about what causes scope creep and how you can avoid it.

What is scope creep in project management?

In project management, project scope is the outline of requirements and deliverables in a project. Scope is usually defined at the beginning of the project planning process, and it should be captured in your project plan, roadmap, or brief. Scope creep is what happens when the asks and deliverables exceed the pre-set project scope.

Create a scope management plan template

What’s the problem with scope creep?

Sometimes, scope creep is harmless—it might manifest as an extra deliverable or two that, while cumbersome, don’t alter the project in any significant way. But notable scope creep can undermine your project’s success by taking attention away from your project objectives. Time spent on these added asks and deliverables is time not spent on your project’s actual objectives.

Examples of project scope creep

Scope creep can impact any project at any time. Here’s how it might show up in your work:

  • You’ve set clear project milestones in your original scope, but your team lead keeps extending the deadline asking for more product functions—without telling you exactly how to do that. While some flexibility can help you and your work be adaptable, these deadlines are too flexible (so the work might never feel “done”). Also functionality can be vague and hard to track when it’s not clearly defined like this, both of which can lead to scope creep.

  • You have a clear project plan for the quarter when something outside of your control changes (evolving macroeconomic conditions or a natural disaster). The result is extra work for you and a more stressful, on-the-fly project adjustment. This kind of uncertainty can cause scope creep, as you “wait and see” how things will turn out before taking action. 

  • You're a team lead who’s suddenly tasked with doing the same amount of work with less resources. As the project progresses, you’re scrambling to keep up. The overall project status suffers as your work can’t keep pace with project goals, leading to scope creep.

In software development, it’s common to use Agile methods for project management. Agile projects are more flexible and adaptable, which is perfect for software development. But it’s also much easier for scope creep to take hold. When using any flexible project management framework, you’ll want to put processes in place that help keep work on track and focused, preventing scope creep.

Why is it important to establish project scope?

When you establish a scope management plan, you’re creating a common understanding between you—the project manager—and all of your project stakeholders. Without a defined project scope, you won’t have clearly-defined, pre-approved control of what is and isn’t included in your project deliverables. This can lead to misalignment and misunderstanding. 

How to identify project scope

So, in order to prevent scope creep, you first need a clearly-defined project scope. The good news is, scoping your project isn’t as hard as you might think. Mostly, your project scope is a way to write down the parameters you’ve already established in other documents, like your project brief.

In order to identify and establish your project scope, follow these five steps:

  1. Start with the “why.” Why are you and your team working on this project? What do you hope to accomplish? Knowing the size and scope of what you intend to achieve will help you define your project scope.

  2. Bring in your project objectives. Your project objectives and project scope are tightly linked. Your project objectives define the aim of your project, and they, in turn, have to fit within your project scope.

  3. Write down your project scope. Remember, this doesn’t have to be very long. Your project scope is just a place for you to clearly outline your project deliverables and how they relate to your project objectives. Feel free to use bullet points, too.

  4. Review your project scope. Make sure you get buy-in from stakeholders, and that everyone is aligned on the project deliverables, objective, and scope.

  5. Make adjustments if necessary. If you weren’t aligned in step four, take some time to rewrite your project scope. Before finalizing it, surface the document to your stakeholders again, to ensure buy-in.

Create a scope management plan template

What causes scope creep?

No one ever wants to see their project fail or lose sight of its original objectives. Here are the most common causes of scope creep—and how you can prevent them.

1. No project scope

This might be an obvious one, but it bears repeating. Without knowing the scope of a project, you don’t have a clear way to align on and communicate your work to everyone involved. Additionally, if you’re working with an outside team or agency, you won’t have documentation (such as a statement of work or work breakdown structure (WBS)) to point to when stakeholders attempt to add new elements to your project.

Make sure to create and define your project scope at the beginning of your project. Consider adding it to your project plan or other early documentation. That way, you have a baseline for your project scope embedded into all of your early project documentation.

Read: Create a better project plan in just 7 steps

2. Poor communication

Once you have your project scope, you then have to share it. If you don’t distribute the document effectively at the beginning of a project, then your stakeholders won’t be able to give  feedback early on. This early communication prevents things from spiraling later on, when requests to change the deliverable or timeline could derail your project. Plus, if you get stakeholder buy-in early, you're essentially creating allies against scope creep.

Make sure to include your project scope in any early project documentation, like your project plan or project brief. That way, everyone has access to the project scope statement—and any misalignment can be resolved before the project begins.

3. Unclear project objectives

Ultimately, you’re working on this project because you’re aiming to deliver something in particular—those achievements and assets are your project objectives.

When you have clear project objectives, your project team has easy insight into what tasks are and are not contributing to the project’s ultimate success. That way, you can focus your effort and energy on productive, high-priority work. On the other hand, if you don’t have clear project objectives, your team members might not know what work to prioritize, and they might end up working on tasks that don’t contribute to the project’s objectives.

Example of an unclear project objective: Improve our company blog to feature stories our readers love.

Example of a clear project objective: Craft at least five different types of blogs in Q1, including, but not limited to, customer stories, tips, new product features, team spotlights, and thought leadership. Closely monitor engagement on each new blog post to determine the top three categories to continue honing in future quarters.

Read: How to write an effective project objective, with examples

4. Unrealistic project objectives

Ok, so maybe your project objectives are clear—but if they’re not something your team can realistically achieve in the amount of time (and within the scope of your project), then your project will inevitably either fail or experience scope creep.

Make sure you’re able to achieve your objectives within the time frame and with the resources your team has. Check your project objectives against your scope and project schedule, to ensure you can ultimately deliver a successful project. If your project objectives and your project scope aren’t aligned at the beginning of the project, then managing scope creep becomes nearly impossible.

Read: IT project management: A guide for managers and their teams

5. Too many stakeholders

It’s really hard to steer a project if everyone is trying to grab hold of the steering wheel. Without a clear project owner—the project manager—your work can get muddied, and your scope can get muddied, too.

Though you’ll have various stakeholders and collaborators on the project, make sure every team has a project lead that’s directly responsible for driving the work forward. To build additional project roles, consider creating a RACI matrix. RACI stands for the four main roles in project management:

  • Responsible. This is the person who is driving the project. They’ll make most of the on-the-ground decisions.

  • Approver. Sometimes, you may need approval from a stakeholder or group of stakeholders. Your Approvers might set the budget, objectives, or tone, to name a few examples.

  • Consulted. Consulted stakeholders are people you might check in with to get their opinion, insight, or guidance. Though the Responsible & Approver roles have final say, the Consulted role is usually an expert in the field.

  • Informed. This is anyone who needs to know about your project. The Informed role might include your project team, cross-functional stakeholders, or executive leaders.

6. Ineffective change control process

Even with clearly-defined roles, you still need an effective change control process in place. Change control is the process of changing an important or foundational element of a project, including project scope. Instead of allowing stakeholders to simply make changes, a change control process implements a set of rules and restrictions to guide any project changes. Usually, that includes a process for team members or stakeholders to submit change requests, a step for those requests to be reviewed by the project manager and other important project stakeholders, and then a system to judge whether those changes will be accepted, denied, or deferred.

A change control process is critical because it allows you to regain control of your project—while still allowing for flexibility to add new requests if absolutely necessary. With a change control process, project details can change. But if they do, you’ll be sure they’re changing for the right reasons.

7. Last minute customer feedback

Customer feedback is key for customer-facing work like new products, launching additional features, or marketing campaigns. But if you aren’t proactive about collecting feedback, you may get customer feedback late in the game that completely changes the intent, scope, timeline, or objectives of your project. This pivot might include changing what you’re already doing, or completely starting over with new features and new requirements.

You’re human—and so are your customers. Last minute changes happen, and there’s only so much you can do about it. Sometimes, you will need to change large elements of your project, and there might not be anything you could have done to stop it.

The best way to reduce the likelihood of this happening is to get plenty of customer feedback, and get it early. Practice regularly sourcing user feedback, or use an Agile project methodology that proactively collects and uses customer feedback in real-time. For more tips, try our free user research template.

The benefits of preventing scope creep

Scope creep does more than just lengthen the time you spend on a project. The confusion and frustration caused by scope creep can also make you feel disengaged with your work. On the flip side, there are lots of benefits to preventing it, such as:

  • Producing what you say you’re going to, when you say you’re going to. By preventing scope creep, you’re more likely to stick to deadlines.

  • More time for focused work in the flow state. Scope creep is distracting at best, and downright disruptive at worst. Without it, you can stay engaged and focused at work, making you more productive and happier while you do it.

  • The more you put out high-quality, focused work, the more satisfied your customers will be. Preventing scope creep ultimately results in better results, which means better products and services for your customers.

How to fix scope creep

Ok, you’ve already gotten started on a project, and you’re worried about scope creep: now what?

If you feel scope creep coming on, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Resurface the project scope. If project stakeholders are pushing for new deliverables, remind them of the project scope and what was—and wasn’t—included in it. Hopefully, that will help the entire project team re-align on the project’s requirements.

  2. If that doesn’t work, try a change control process. Ask the requestor to submit their change requests through the change control process you’ve set up. Then, review those requests with your project stakeholders and decide if the request is worth altering your project scope for.

  3. If the scope changes are accepted, consider de-prioritizing another deliverable. Is there anything you can delay or cut altogether to make room for this new work?

  4. If there isn’t a way to de-prioritize any currently-planned work, take a look at your project resources. Use your resource management plan to see if there are any resources you can use to help you achieve your project objectives.

In order to do all of this—to gain and maintain clarity on your project scope, objectives, and plan—use a work management tool like Asana. With Asana, you can manage your entire workflow and share it with your entire project team, so everyone’s on the same page.

So long, scope creep

Some people might say “Hey, scope creep happens.” And for many of us, it does. But you can also prevent it. With a clear project scope, visible project plan, and easy-to-use work management solution, you can hit your project objectives without going outside of your project scope.

Create a scope management plan template

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