Taming Scope Creep

John F. Gravel

“Scope creep” (according to Wikipedia) in project management refers to changes, continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope, at any point after the project begins.[1] This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful.[2] It is related to but distinct from feature creep, because feature creep refers to features, and scope creep refers to the whole project.

Scope creep can be a result of:

Scope creep plagues many projects, especially large ones, and it frustrates project teams and stakeholders alike. Although seemingly benign at first, these small changes or ignored ambiguities seem harmless, as stakeholders and team members lean towards optimistic viewpoints early in a project. Ultimately, however, these small issues lead to big problems.

Keeping projects on track requires a clear, realistic view and an unrelenting focus on commitment and deliverables. Project leaders have to possess strong discipline and interpersonal skills in the face of stakeholders with personal agendas and engineers who inflate their requirements.

Fortunately, solid project management fundamentals can tame the most common causes of scope creep:

1. Clearly define your scope and include as many reviewers as possible … even the service provider doing the work.

  • Avoiding ambiguity with a clearly defined scope is the first step to preventing scope creep.
  • Be realistic when setting goals and gain a full understanding of the rationale behind each requirement.

Communicate the scope to engineers early in the process to allow optimal decision-making and ensure expectations are met.

2. Stay aligned.

  • Clearly communicate objects, deliverables, and scope to stakeholders, contractors, sub-contractors, and engineers up front. Share all costs and the rationalization underpinning the business case and project development plan.
  • If change requests are approved, maintain alignment by clearly communicating the change to all parties.
  • If project objectives or deliverables shift midstream, manage the change from the top down, ensuring consistent communication to all levels and through all channels.

3. Make fact-based decisions in the face of all change requests.

  • Optimism isn’t a key ingredient in project management success. The impact of all potential changes must be quantified and supported by data-driven rationale to ensure the promised benefits offset additional costs and/or delayed schedules.
  • All change requests, regardless of size, must follow the proper approval protocol. Project teams must not circumvent these protocols or independently make decisions about changes that affect an entire team.

4. Get comfortable saying no.

  • The most valuable word in a project manager’s vocabulary may be “no.” Project managers that try to make everyone happy, will very likely make no one happy.
  • Any approval to a change in scope must include an estimate of the impacts to cost and schedule.

5. Changes happen … Follow your process.

  • We can’t just ignore that changes won’t happen. When they do, there must be an authorized process that is followed including accurate estimates to cost and schedule.

There must also be an established line of authority for approvals. Original project estimates are often based on conceptual designs, and errors or omissions may occur. Realistic contingency plans that mitigate these risks and avoid scope creep are crucial and must be applied at the project outset.

Taming scope creep ultimately comes down to a few vital components: communication, clarity, and vigilance. The primary objective for any project manager is to keep the fundamental business case in focus and ensure that any and all change requests are based on decision making that is rational, data-driven, and quantitative. Managers that are able to stay the course will be able to deliver the best results.