Stay on target (project scope creep)

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Stay on target (project scope creep)

We’ve all had those projects that just keep dragging on and on forever. You know the one, the six month project that has now been going on for 12 months with no end in sight. Why does this happen, you ask? Well, there can be many reasons, but one of the main culprits is Scope Creep. In today’s blog we discuss what it is, what to look for and ways to avoid project scope creep.

What is scope creep?

At its end, a project produces a deliverable, which can be a product, a service, documentation, or a result. The extent of the work needed to make the final deliverable is the project scope.

Scope creep is: “an unwanted event, when the original project scope expands with additional features and functionality without the corresponding adjustments to time, budget, or other resources.” All projects encounter change, and change is neither good nor bad. However, based on the scope creep definition, change, or expansion in the project scope becomes undesirable if it happened without proper assessment and approval. 

Effects of scope creep

Every project will encounter change because aspects and components in a project change. These include requirements, markets, client preferences, finances, available technology, or resources, to name a few. But letting scope creep into a project is always a definite risk and disadvantage. Scope creep results in the following:

  • Missed deadlines, project delays, overworked team, or over-budget
  • Final deliverable not according to project scope
  • Demotivated project team, disappointed project sponsor, and an unhappy client
  • Devoting project time and resources to unapproved changes
  • Decreasing allotted time and resources for approved parts of the project scope

Sources of project scope creep.

Although the client seems to benefit the most when scope creep occurs, it is not always because of their action. Project managers should be aware of all possible sources and negotiate to keep the project on track. Here is some scope creep examples from likely and unlikely sources.


Project teams are aware that the client may request small additions that can accumulate to something big that will impact. They can also change their minds mid-stream or suggest how team members work and affect the total effort.


User feedback is an essential source of information to ensure the project will deliver the desired value for the business. The project manager and other stakeholders should collate test results and user feedback and prioritize the changes they need to incorporate into the deliverable without affecting the project scope.

Internal stakeholders

Senior stakeholders can sometimes have influence on the project because of their authority. By giving high importance to client relationships due to a marketing strategy, they might suggest additional features or functionality that could ultimately affect the duration and cost of the project. The project manager should clearly relay the impact of the further scope to the project.

External partners

Some projects have dependencies on external partners and third parties where project teams have less control. These partners should communicate changes in specs, and schedules once they occur. All stakeholders should know about project milestones at the beginning of the project.

Team members

Employees can unintentionally introduce scope creep if they are unclear of the complete project scope. They may include new features or functionality to simplify a process or to solve a problem, whilst innovation is helpful as long as it does not create more significant problems for others or the project as a whole.

Project manager

The project manager can be a source of scope creep if they do not have a robust change management process. PMs need to make sure they deliver projects on time and within budget, so the pressure to create shortcuts to address issues or problems without asking all parties involved in the project is a recipe for disaster.

Top 5 causes of project scope creep

Every project has the potential to expand in different directions. We have spoken about the areas in which scope creep can enter from within and outside the project team. Here are the top five causes of scope creep and examples of how they happen.

1. Lack of scope definition

If the project has an unclear scope , then project stakeholders can interpret the scope differently. In effect, each one will have a different understanding, so they may ask for changes if they see a separate deliverable than what was originally in mind. The scope can be unclear because of a lack of details or because of poor communication. As a result, the project team members may approach clients directly for clarification, allowing clients to introduce scope creep.

2. Lack of scope management

Complete information, for example, on client requirements, are rarely available from the start. Needs can grow as the project progresses. When project teams have to make decisions by themselves, whether to add or reject functionality for recently discovered requirements, they become the source of scope creep. Project sponsors need to know about these new requirements, enter them into a formal process to manage scope changes, and make adjustments as needed.

3. Scope drift

Project teams need a consistent process for gathering requirements. Project sponsors should give project teams enough time to get complete and accurate information and decompose high-level deliverables into smaller work packages using a WBS. There is a tendency for the scope to expand or extend if the objectives are not clear and measurable enough. Scope drift happens when the project scope includes more than what the client needs. Having too many stakeholders involved also create scope drift.

4. Lack of accountability or stakeholder involvement

Project sponsors are higher executives more focused on the big-picture of the business. When they or other essential stakeholders do not devote time to the project, especially at the scope definition stage, other project team members or external partners step in to fill up the vacuum. Unfortunately, they do not have the correct information or authority as the project sponsors to support the project all the way.

5. Length of project

The longer the project, the greater the chance for scope creep to occur. Project sponsors have more time to compare strategies. 

Clients can change their minds. 

Business markets can present new requirements. 

Project team members can discover further information or methods.

Ways to manage project scope creep

Change is inevitable, and scope creep can occur on every occasion of change. Project managers cannot wholly stop scope creep and should always expect it. They should document requirements properly, create a clear project schedule, and engage the project team. Making a change control process enables a project team to handle scope creep positively. This process includes:

  • Monitoring the project’s status and comparing it with the baseline scope
  • Determining the cause, source, and degree of the changes from the scope to avoid project scope creep
  • Setting up a change management process that handles change requests, impact assessment, and recommendation or approval.
  • Regular communication, verification, and reporting with project sponsors and stakeholders

There can be other factors that contribute to the project dragging on that are outside your control (I’m looking at you, COVID), but if you can keep a tight rein on the scope of the project, you will be well on your way to staying within your timeline and budget, and avoid project scope creep. Let’s just leave that bright new shiny toy until after the initial project is completed.

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