What is Scope Creep? 5 Cause and Ways to Prevent It

Scope creep has plagued project managers for centuries and it sadly still plagues our projects to this day. As one of the three critical project management constraints, managing scope creep has become one of the most pressing challenges of the modern project manager. But just what causes scope creep and how can you prevent it?

What is Project Scope?

Before jumping into the mechanics of scope creep, we must first explore the concept of project scope itself. 

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines project scope as ‘the work required to output a project’s deliverables.’ This includes all aspects of the project ranging from activities, resources, timelines, deliverables to considerations on key stakeholders, assumptions and more.

A clearly defined project scope is meant to provide teams with sufficient information to plan and budget for projects that can generate the most value within the organisation’s constraints. A project’s scope can also be identified through the use of a work breakdown structure (WBS) that helps identify the individual tasks, activities and deliverables. All this work will typically be compiled into a project scope document that is made available to all team members and relevant stakeholders. 

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep occurs when projects are left unchecked and expand beyond their original agreed-upon confines. PMBOK defines scope creep as ‘adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval’. 

Scope creep often occurs in small incremental changes in its early stages but can quickly spiral out of control if left unchecked. A fun way of understanding scope creep is like your local trip to IKEA. You always go in with a definitive list of the specific items you need, some pillows, bed sheets and a lamp. Before you know it, you’re now leaving with a couch, five potted plants and frozen meatballs. Great additions to your house, but not exactly what you wanted or needed.

While a trip to IKEA may sound harmless, transplant this to multi-million dollar projects and you can see the problem. In fact, scope creep is such an issue in project management, particularly in IT projects, with research from McKinsey showing that one in six IT projects exceed their budgets by over 200%. 

But the dangers of scope creep don’t stop there. Some other negative impacts of scope creep include increasing overall workload, demotivating employees, diverting resources from core deliverables, failing to reach deadlines and, in the end, disappointing project sponsors and clients with a lacklustre product.

5 Key Causes of Scope Creep

While there are many different factors that can contribute to scope creep, here are the five key causes.

1. Poorly defined scope

Scope creep typically starts from a poorly defined project scope. When project scope is left overly open-ended or lacks proper clarity and depth, project members and leaders can quickly become lost in the ever-expanding needs of the project and fail to prioritise the right activities, features or tasks. This is often caused by a lack of detailed information and poor communication.

With a proper list of priorities, requirements and objectives, teams can always re-evaluate and reprioritise activities based on the pre-defined outlines to make sure they are truly providing the product the client needs.

2. Lack of communication

One of the biggest contributors to the lack of defined scope and the ensuing snowball of the project scope is a lack of communication. Scope creep often occurs in projects in which clients and project teams are not actively communicating their requirements, changes and objectives, the final product will always end up being different from the client’s vision. A lack of communication can also occur within the project team itself when prioritises are not properly conveyed and expectations are not properly set from the establishment of the project.

3. Ineffective change controls and scope management

Projects always change. It is how you manage those changes that make the difference between delayed projects and successful ones. Scope creep often occurs in teams that do not have a robust or defined scope management or change control process that allows them to easily identify, assess, mitigate and manage changes and issues that come along the way. 

4. Lack of stakeholders involvement

Involving key stakeholders, not just the clients, is more than sending them a few emails and updating them on progress. Proper stakeholder involvement involves actively gathering their opinions, managing expectations, implementing changes collectively and communicating ongoing progress. When stakeholders are disengaged, they can often misunderstand the level of effort the team is undertaking and make excessive demands without understanding its potential impacts on overall project success.

5. Project length

The longer the project, the easier it is to lose sight of the original intentions and requirements of the project. Longer projects also face the challenge of vaguer requirements, deadlines, budgets and plans as many unexpected factors can potentially derail the project. This is particularly common in Agile projects that are typically open-ended product or service-based projects and thus are more likely to suffer from scope creep than conventional waterfall-based projects with defined end-dates.

Ways to Avoid Scope Creep

Have a clearly defined Statement of Work document

A Statement of Work (SOW) document is a formal agreement between two parties that helps keep all parties accountable and focused when executing a project. It is a slightly more detailed and binding document over the scope of work document.

The SOW typically acts as a detailed plan and roadmap that goes into specifics on not just what has to be done, but how it should be done. It also clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of different parties, typically between the project team and the client. This helps reduce the risk of miscommunication and allows all parties to be on the same page when discussing any changes moving forward.

To help you out,  we have made a downloadable Statement of Work template to help your team get started on preventing scope creep!

Be prepared for change

While a Scope of Work document is a critical piece for effective scope management, a project’s scope is never truly set in stone. Change is always bound to happen no matter how detailed or specific your plans may be. 

Effective scope management is not about containing the project scope to the original but about controlling the requests for changes and managing the processes to ensure there are proper governance frameworks that lead to the right tasks being prioritised. Some ways a team can prepare themselves better for change include recording log changes, holding re-planning sessions and implementing the right process to gain additional funding or resources.

Monitor and manage changes in real-time

Being able to monitor requests for change and manage them in real-time is the best way to make sure changes are made based on accurate data that reflect the project’s actual condition. This is typically achieved through an effective PPM solution like pmo365 that can give you 24/7 visibility and control over all activities within your project, especially in regards to risk management, schedule management and more. 

Educate and communicate with key stakeholders 

As mentioned above, lack of communication and stakeholder involvement are two critical causes of scope creep. Make sure to invest ample time throughout your project to properly engage with stakeholders in a meaningful and impactful way. 

This may include discovery sessions during the early stages of the projects to help collectively develop and define projects requirements within a Statement of Work document. During later stages, continual status updates and product trials are key ways of keeping stakeholders in the loop and client requirements at the forefront of project progress. Thankfully, having an SoW document will help significantly with keeping everyone on the same page when change discussions occur, ensuring everyone’s opinions are taken into consideration whilst also prioritising project value for both the organisation and the client.

Overcome scope creep with the right PPM solution

While scope creep is caused by a multitude of factors, many of those factors can be addressed with the right PPM solution. From facilitating communication to enabling real-time monitoring and control, a proper PPM solution gives project teams the confidence and ability to overcome the great challenge of scope creep.

Lucky for you, pmo365 is one of the most comprehensive PPM solutions available. Build of Microsoft’s Power Platform and taping into the amazing powers of Office365, pmo365 creates bespoke project portfolio management solutions that are catered to your specific needs with an emphasis on taking your project management activities to the next level.

If you want to find out more about how we can help you overcome scope creep, make sure to check out our how it works page or talk directly with our PPM experts today!

What is Project Scope?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines project scope as ‘the work required to output a project’s deliverables.’ This includes all aspects of the project ranging from activities, resources, timelines, deliverables to considerations on key stakeholders, assumptions and more.
A clearly defined project scope is meant to provide teams with sufficient information to plan and budget for projects that can generate the most value within the organisation’s constraints. A project’s scope can also be identified through the use of a work breakdown structure (WBS) that helps identify the individual tasks, activities and deliverables. All this work will typically be compiled into a project scope document that is made available to all team members and relevant stakeholders. 

5 Key Causes of Scope Creep

1. Poorly defined scope
2. Lack of communication
3. Ineffective change controls and scope management
4. Lack of stakeholders involvement
5. Project length

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