If you’ve ever worked as a freelancer or within an agency, you’ve probably experienced scope creep.
Scope creep happens when changes in technical requirements are introduced to a project, but equivalent increases in budget or timeline are not included. These changes often appear as subtle and minor, but if left unchecked can cause a project to run off schedule or incur unanticipated cost overruns — ultimately impacting a project’s overall success.
At its very worst, the effect of scope creep can grow beyond the confines of a single project and affect your business as a whole. It can alter the timelines of subsequent jobs in queue, negatively influence the productivity and satisfaction of your team, and result in serious implications for the profitability of your business.
Luckily, you don’t have to let scope creep ruin your project workflow when it does show its ugly head. With the right strategies in place, you can manage and potentially avoid scope creep entirely when working with your clients.
What causes scope creep?
Before we get into strategies you can use to prevent scope creep, it’s important to understand the factors that leave your project vulnerable. While there are countless reasons the scope of a project can grow, here are a few of the most common causes:
- Misunderstanding the project requirements — This is probably the most frequently cited cause of scope creep, and can originate from either the agency or client side. If the specifics of a project are not discussed, agreed upon, and properly understood before work begins, it’s more than likely that one party will eventually realize some vital features were overlooked and must be included.
- No defined feedback process — If you don’t clearly outline your process for receiving and implementing feedback with your client, you risk being overloaded with requests for changes and add-ons at various stages throughout the project. This will be significantly worse if a lack of feedback process is coupled with poorly defined project requirements.
- Focusing on immediate client satisfaction — When first starting to work with a new client, your efforts are often focused on strengthening that relationship by any means necessary. This often translates to you accepting any additional requests your client throws at you. While this may indeed help nurture a positive relationship, it will only truly satisfy them in the short-term, especially when they realize the influence it had on the final quality of your project. When you are too focused on immediate satisfaction, one of you will end up unsatisfied — either your client receives a low-quality product or your business loses revenue on the project.
- Gold plating — This is when a designer or developer continues to work on and finetune a project, to a point where there’s not enough added value to justify the added cost.These additional features are generally not requested by the client (as discussed above), but are completed in an attempt to go above and beyond. In general, gold plating ends up doing more harm than good, as it drives up internal costs with no clear benefit.
- Uncontrollable external factors — Let’s face it, there are countless other factors outside of your control that can impact the scope of your project. These could include economical changes in the market, introductions of new technologies, alterations in business strategies, and even personal emergencies. While you may not be able to prevent these from occurring, it’s important you forecast and prepare for their possibility.
Now that you have a better idea of what can cause scope creep, let’s dive into some strategies you can use to prevent you projects from growing out of control.
1. Complete a scope of work assessment
In order to manage the scope of a project, you and your client must share a realistic understanding of the work needed to successfully complete the job. While it’s easy to make assumptions about scope based on previous experiences, you should sit down with your client and walk through all aspects of the project to safeguard yourself from future problems.
This assessment begins with your initial client briefing. The purpose of this meeting is to collect information about the project requirements, which can be used to make better decisions on how to allocate resources — like time, contributors, and costs — with the goal of improving your workflow. You should ask questions about your client’s goals, timelines, and needs, and then compile your findings into a design brief.
Try to capture as many details as possible about their business objectives associated with the project. This information will help you identify what features absolutely need to be included in their web design, and which do not.
After completing your brief, you should consult with your internal team about how much time will be needed to complete certain tasks. Invite members to share their ideas after the initial briefing, and have them sign-off on the scope before sharing it with your client.
Getting their input at this point will ensure you don’t set unrealistic deadlines or budgets for particular tasks, especially given their existing workloads. Plus, their expert insight will help you identify any necessary components of the design you may have missed. This process does take time, but will ensure your bases are covered when defining the project scope, and will save you headaches in the long run.
2. Outline the scope of work in your contract
A statement of work outlines every detail of the project agreed upon by you, your team, and your client. This generally includes all project components and their corresponding milestones, pricing, and final delivery dates. It’s important to write your statement of work with simple, unambiguous language to avoid any misinterpretations by your client.
Within your statement of work, be sure to clearly state that any work outside of the original scope will be considered as extra, and is subject to a premium charge above what was originally agreed on. Including this clause will help you avoid unnecessary cost conflicts with your client, if you do decide to expand the scope of work.
While it’s good practice to include the scope in your contract, it’s even more important that your client actually understands what you’ve defined before they sign-off on it. Take the time to walk them through all aspects of the contract to ensure they agree with your proposed scope, as well as the repercussions they’ll face if they push for additional features. This mutual agreement can help safeguard you from scope creep, since you and your client have a point of reference to refer to if additional feature requests arise.
3. Define a review process with your client
The review phase is the most common place for scope creep to appear. When submitting deliverables without a firm process in place, you might hear reactions from your client and their team like: “Wouldn’t this be better if we added this extra feature?” or “I don’t like the feel of this one, let’s change the direction to something else.”
They then turn to you, the designer, to make it happen. This process can repeat itself over and over, until the project you complete hardly resembles the original job you priced out.
It may seem like an extreme example, but it’s more common than you’d expect. When isolated, some of these additions may appear minor and insignificant, but the size and cost of a project can snowball if you let your client become too comfortable with giving impromptu feedback.
Instead of appeasing every request your client makes, you should work with them to determine an acceptable structure for soliciting and accepting feedback. While the resulting process may be unique to each project, it should always offer your client enough time to provide adequate feedback without overburdening your team with endless fixes. When defining the structure of your process, I’d recommend keeping it simple and focusing on the following items:
- Total number of iterations (i.e. three rounds of revisions)
- Dates at which these iterations will be delivered (i.e. the first prototype will be delivered on March 1)
- Review period length (i.e. client must give feedback in three days)
Even with a review process in place, you should clearly express the importance of sticking to the original scope you had agreed on if they want timelines and budgets to remain unchanged. Communicate that the process is meant to catch issues and improve the final product, not reinvent it entirely. It should be clear that any additional features added to the scope will have a direct impact on your delivery date and the overall cost of the project.
Having this conversation with your client will, at the very least, fully disclose the implications they face if they decide to push for additional work.
Prevention is the best treatment for scope creep
One thing you need to accept about client work is that most projects can and will change.
Regardless of how much planning you’ve done, you will never be able to accurately anticipate every upcoming feature request or gap in your project requirements. But with the right strategies by your side, scope creep will no longer be something that plagues your projects — it will become something you are aware of and prepared to overcome.