How to manage Project Scope Creep: Tools and Techniques with free sample templates

Project scope creep…. mere sound of this phrase makes many project managers to creep out. It is so sneaky that it hits you and your project where it really hurts. It can even lead to a total project failure and several project managers realize the actual issue only after the project’s funeral. Scope creep is one of the project risks which is hard to find a way-out once it occurs but at the same time often gets underestimated by several project managers.  

I hear you saying “Just cut the crap! what is scope creep, exactly?”… right?

To simply put this, scope creep occurs when the scope/deliverable/features on a project grow during project execution from what was originally agreed/set. This additional burden somehow sneaks into the project scope without taking additional time and budget requirements into account. This is a common thing in any project but if not dealt carefully, it will be the number-one project killer. You may end up missing deadlines and spend your entire budget (or even more) on a delivery which was not intended in the first place. When these happen in a project, I doubt you call it a ‘success’.      

Runaway Train

So who creates scope creep? Unfortunately, we all do! As a matter of fact, I just did. Here I am sitting with a determination to make some progress on this article, phone rings, a friend asking a question on a pension fund plan which he never intended to invest in, a tempting Q&A notification from Quora, competing one another to lure my attention. Distraction from what I intended to do is a kind of scope creep –  easily surrendered to and difficult to duck.

In project management world, you’ll start a project with a set measures and deliverable, and then it starts to breed on its own, snowballing into something larger. All these don’t happen in one fine morning or after an all-out confrontation meeting decision. These happen so quietly, one baby step at a time. I’m sure someone you like is going to ask you a minor addition to the project work that would take no time to accomplish (at least, that’s what you thought). Over the period of time, this kind of small things get added countless times to your project work, before you realize it, your simple project has been turned into ‘Missing Impossible 6’ which is also due tomorrow. And, you know what happens then!

Change is Constant

On the other hand, scope creep is not a bad thing after all. But the only condition is that it must be managed well. In fact, one of the important duties of any project manager is to manage the scope change during the project life cycle. In doing that, the project manager should take into consideration of evolving project scope and eliminate/manage scope creep at the same time. Any real time project is bound to undergo some or other changes after you set your project parameters.

You might think I’m arguing for and against the scope creep at the same time. The point is, scope creep is a project-killer only when the project stakeholders, including project sponsor, manager, don’t think that the scope of the project has been changed.  The big problem arises when you accommodate certain project scope changes (due to various reasons) but one of your stakeholders, say project sponsor, doesn’t aware/agree that you have altered the scope. Due to this, your project team needs to do more work but your sponsor is expecting you to complete the project with the same resources originally assigned (be it time, budget and people). On the other hand, if you manage the scope creep well, it turns into an effective change process.

As a project manager, you should always anticipate the scope of the project to be changed during the project life cycle. Hence, a productive change control process should be defined, documented and enforced among the project stakeholders during the project planning phase in order to deal with this inevitability. In any given project, project deliverables and associated elements must be defined and baselined during planning phase. Baselining the scope will bring agreement among various project stakeholders. Once done, the defined/set scope is locked-down and placed under defined change process. However, scope change can come into picture due to several reasons;

  • Poor planning in original scope
  • Change of stakeholder/mind
  • Regulatory changes
  • Business needs/competition
  • Technology advancement

Common Causes of Scope Creep

Causes of Scope Creep

Ambiguous Scope Definition:

Not having your project scope defined earlier leads to project disaster. Project manager must involve all key stakeholder while setting the scope during project planning stage and keep all team members aligned to it. Any ambiguity in scope should be addressed well in advance so that each and every project member know what they are going to deliver. 

Not keeping the client on the same page:

If the project scope is not discussed with clients well enough, they are more likely to change their mind and deliverables. Though documenting project scope helps them to understand the project goals better, you also need to make sure the clients are absolutely clear on the project deliverables and limitations by conducting various meetings.     

Not involving the client throughout:

Avoid nasty surprises and rework. It is advisable to keep the clients in loop throughout the project life cycle so that they can inspect the project progress and intermediate outcome. Collaborate well and share them the WIP project deliverable. 

Ways to Manage Scope Creep

Manage Scope Creep

A Well-defined Scope:

The scope of the work needs to be agreed and documented at the beginning of the project. A serious of meetings need to be setup with clients to go through their expectations and see what is possible with the given budget and time. These elements need to be documented with details so that it can be ‘signed-off’ by the client.

The Scope of work details should typically include (but not limited to) timelines, milestones, deliverables, budget, roles and responsibilities. Accountability should be fixed for each item listed in the scope document. Once these details are captured at the beginning of the project, it is much easier to identify and negotiate scope creep.  Most importantly, project manager needs to take this agreed list of requirements to all project stakeholders and discuss the same in detail in order make sure everyone is on the same page. Also, it is vital to involve project key stakeholders during requirement discussion with client to ensure all project expectations are covered and you don’t overlook any key factors that may impact the project in the future.

Put a ‘Plan B’ in Place:

Given the fact that projects rarely sail smooth once started. There could be some setbacks which may arise due to change in the requirements. Hence, it is wise to put a backup plan in place to address scope creep. This will definitely help project manager saves project managers from having awkward disputes with clients if they come up any changes down the road.

This backup plan should define the process and people responsible for reviewing and approving project scope changes or additions if any. Also, it should clearly state the threshold limits for extending timelines and budget associated with the extra work. 

Transparent and Proactive Communication:

As a project manager, you are responsible for the project deliverables and success. So be upfront if any scope change comes up and lead the discussion with client explaining about the potential delay or cost overrun, this change may cause. You need to go to them with your professional estimations backed by proper data, work with them and carry out the appropriate course of action.

Analyze Impact and Prioritize:

When a client comes up with any changes once the requirements are frozen, project manager needs to analyze the impact of the change in the set project metrics. The outcome of the analysis needs to be communicated to the client detailing the additional effort (timeline) and budget involved. Project manager should put the change request through approval process in order to get it approved by appropriate authorities. In this process, project manager needs to negotiate with the client in order to reprioritize the upcoming deliverables/milestones that may get impacted by this change.

It’s OK to say ‘NO’:

It is not always true that the changes proposed by the client will add value to the project. Sometimes, the proposed changes can be of no use or it can even pose negative impact on the project in the long term. In these situations, project manager should oppose the proposed changes in the best interest of the overall project objectives. However, project manager should be mindful before saying ‘No’ and should present his/her case well with adequate data points. If the client still insist, project manager can resort into other options such as escalations or committing this change request as a separate project. This way, he/she can stick to the current agreement rather than getting into vicious change cycle without making any progress on the current project.      

Scope Creep in Agile

Scope creep generally impacts the project with fixed scope. Does it mean we cannot have scope creep while using Agile methodology? The answer would be no. Though, Agile embraces change – but you need to have a solid change process to manage scope changes effectively. However, it is easy to manage scope creep in Agile compared to other traditional processes due to the inherent nature of the methodology.  If you are using Scrum, any new requirement should be tabled in the sprint planning to get them into backlog. Project manager should negotiate with the owner to get them prioritized appropriately. In order to manage the time and resources, something can be deprioritized in order to accommodate the changes. The changes will then be broken down into stories and they can be swapped with other stories which are not critical.

So what constitutes as scope creep in Agile? Though it is easy to say prioritize and deprioritize something based on change requirement, it is sometimes hard to take a decision. Scope creep arises when the owner doesn’t deprioritize/remove features while adding any new scope items in the sprint cycle. Also, scope creep can happen if the impact/effort requirement for the new feature is poorly estimated. This could spread the team too thin and cram extra effort into already too-tight schedule. Hence, project manager must ensure to break-down any new features into several granular stories to get them estimated and prioritized appropriately.       

Tools to Manage Scope Creep

The fundamental for preventing scope creep is project planning. The better projects planning leads to little or no scope for scope creep as the project managers and team members are more prepared.  Several project management tools that help project managers to plan, baseline and control scope changes in order to avoid scope creep. Below are a few of them;

Scope Baseline:

Scope baseline contains the project scope statement approved by stakeholders and detailed work breakdown structure (WBS). This allows the project team to use as scope base so that they can compare the current progress and track any changes. The key here is to capture the detailed project work after careful analysis of project scope. Project work descriptions need to be as detailed as possible and there should not be any room for interpretation. Once the project progress, team member can measure the current project work by comparing the same to project scope baseline in order to determine the project success.

Scope Baseline

Scope Management Plan:

This project-planning component helps the team to carefully define and control the project scope during project execution.  Scope management plan defines the responsibilities and authorities when it comes to any change in scope. It brings a defined process to the project to actively manage and control project scope during project life cycle.

Scope Management Plan Sample Template

Variance Analysis:

Variance analysis is a process of measuring the deviation of project scope performance vs. set scope values (Scope baseline).  Scope management plan determines the acceptable level of variance, which may result in no scope change. Anything beyond this threshold level requires corrective action, which will result in project scope revision.  Project scope revision needs to follow the change control process through which scope baseline, project plan and documentation will be updated. This effective tool may applied during several stages of the project to measure the project scope impact.

Change Management Plan:

Change management plan allows the project team to evaluate and incorporate any changes in the project. Project stakeholders may have different opinions and interests, which brings many changes to the agreed project scope over the period. The changes could be small or a new feature altogether which affects the integrity of project scope in the long run. This cause budget overruns and project failure. By developing and adhering to a set change management plan will enable the team to negotiate and evaluate better, when it comes to a change. Hence, all the changes are evaluated in detail and documented before incorporating them into project scope.

Change Management Plan

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