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

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsDecember 11th, 20206 min read
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Picture this: you’re hard at work on a project and its deliverables. Suddenly, you get an ask from a cross-functional stakeholder to add an additional deliverable. You didn’t quite plan on it, 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.

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. Not establishing a project’s scope can cause misalignment and misunderstanding. 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.

Sometimes, scope creep can be harmless—it might manifest as an extra deliverable or two that, while cumbersome, don’t alter the project in a significant way. But significant 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—and can also lead to burnout or overwork.

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 been establishing in other early project 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.

7 common causes of 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 a project scope, you don’t have a clear way to align on and communicate your project scope to everyone involved. Additionally, if you’re working with an outside team or agency, you also don’t have a document or statement of work (SOW) 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: How to create a project plan that works to keep you on track

2. Poor communication

Once you have your project scope, you also have to share it out. If you don’t distribute the document effectively—and at the beginning of a project—then your stakeholders won’t be looped in. Even though you’ve taken the time to create a project scope, you might still suffer from misalignment or even project failure if not everyone is aware that it exists.

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 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 the thing is, there’s only so much you can do about this one. 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, and proactively collecting customer feedback. For more tips, try our free user research template.

How to manage and prevent 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.” But it doesn’t have to. 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.

Ready to get started with work management? Learn more about Asana.

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