Threats to a project’s success aren’t always easy to spot — or weed out — in the early stages. When left unchecked, these sneaky issues take over all facets of the work, resulting in adverse impacts such as poor efficiency, low-quality deliverables, and sour stakeholder relations.

Scope creep is one such concern that stealthily snowballs behind the scenes to avalanche-sized proportions. While scope creep isn’t always disastrous, project managers must know what occurs during scope creep and how to control it to keep initiatives on task and on target.

The definition of scope creep

Scope creep refers to unexpected changes or additions that broaden a project’s initial plan. Any alteration in a project’s official roadmap — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant — introduces “creep” into a company’s expected requirements, activities, and goals.

Since scope creep happens when stakeholders submit adjustments to a roadmap, it always occurs after the initiation and planning stages of a project’s lifecycle. After a project moves from planning to execution, it’s vulnerable to real-world impacts, including dozens of scope change stressors.

As projects evolve in real time, teams and stakeholders need some flexibility to adapt to unforeseen changes such as new client expectations, shifting market conditions, or leadership shake-ups. That’s a natural part of the process.

Scope creep only becomes a big problem when managers aren’t prepared or equipped to bend to sudden demands and requests. Unrestrained and excessive scope increases the likelihood that the team uses more time, energy, and money than they initially bargained for. This is especially problematic when it violates an agreement between the company and a client, meaning a project won’t be properly resourced. Plus, the extra demands from scope creep make teams more likely to experience delays, overwork, and deliver inferior-quality products.

Why does scope creep happen?

The direct cause of scope creep is a stakeholder’s demands for unplanned changes or additional deliverables to a team’s workload. There are, however, dozens of potential situations or miscommunications that lead managers into a scope creep situation. Let’s explore a few:

  • Ill-defined plans and requirements: You can set yourself up for scope creep if you write project plans without precise expectations and limitations. When clients and team members don’t know their project’s baseline requirements, nothing keeps them from requesting or taking on extra work.
  • No formal change management procedure: Before managers implement a project addition or revision, proposals must go through a formal “change management process” to assess viability. Then, your team can either accept or reject the request. If the team doesn’t have a change management document — or stakeholders don’t know about these procedures — there’s no way to communicate, record, and factor in proposed scope adjustments.
  • Changing real-world circumstances: Projects don’t evolve in a vacuum, and stakeholders sometimes revise their strategies to fit the most recent economic data or market research. When stakeholders constantly pivot their wants to align with the latest trends or information, they contribute to a project’s scope creep.
  • Stakeholder pressure and unrealistic expectations: Pressure from clients or executives can be a significant driving force behind scope creep, especially if you have a tendency toward people-pleasing. Stakeholders may also have unrealistic expectations without accounting for their limited resources.
  • Gold plating: Scope creep doesn’t always come from external stakeholder requests — sometimes, team members add creep to their duties through “gold plating.” In this situation, staff go beyond a project’s intended scope to “add value” to a stakeholder’s deliverables, typically with unrequested features. The additional unauthorized work puts a strain on company resources, and it’s often counterproductive to a stakeholder’s goals.

How to avoid scope creep in project management

The most effective way to deal with scope creep is to prevent changes from happening in the first place — or, more realistically, have a plan to deal with them when they arise. If you prepare for scope changes, you’re in a stronger position to maintain control over your projects. Here are five tips:

  1. Define and communicate baseline scope: The first step in preventing scope creep is clearly defining the parameters of a project’s scope. Create a detailed scope definition and work breakdown structure (WBS) with information on essential features, including core objectives, deliverables, and budget constraints. Once these documents are ready, meet with stakeholders and team members to ensure everyone knows their roles and has realistic expectations.
  2. Prioritize key objectives and “must-haves”: When listing a project’s goals, take time to differentiate non-negotiable objectives from “nice-to-have” features. This additional step further cements your project’s baseline expectations and helps the team decide what to focus on during high-stress, time-sensitive situations.
  3. Implement change control protocols: After writing a thorough project plan, create a set of guidelines for stakeholders and clients to use when submitting change requests. Make sure the relevant parties have the proper communication details and documentation for a streamlined process. Also, educate employees on the criteria for evaluating proposed changes and approving scope alterations.
  4. Take advantage of project management software: Project management software applications — including Gantt charts, roadmaps, and timesheets — help both stakeholders and team members monitor real-time changes to the project’s status. These tools also make it simple to communicate and incorporate additions to a project and analyze implications on budget, time horizon, and workload.
  5. Hold frequent meetings: Constant communication with stakeholders during planning and execution ensures everyone has the same vision of the project’s objectives and limitations. Use these meetings to address potential concerns and review the proper procedures for filing change requests.

How to manage scope creep

While it’s better to keep unexpected changes from sneaking into a team’s operations, sometimes scope creep slips through the cracks. Thankfully, with thorough change protocols and risk management plans, you have the tools to avoid a catastrophe. Here’s how to manage persistent and permanent scope creep:

  • Lean back on a change management plan: Once you notice unexpected additions creeping into a project’s operations, consider scheduling a refresher course on your change management procedures. Openly address scope change concerns, double-check that stakeholders know how to submit a change request, and re-train employees responsible for approving and documenting project updates.
  • Adjust deadlines for deliverables: After learning about scope changes, you need to account for how these undocumented additions impact workflows and due dates without sacrificing the deliverable’s quality. Analyze and document scope revisions and communicate updated workflow procedures, priorities, and expected timelines. If this isn’t possible due to constraints, loop in stakeholders and inform them that their asks are too much.
  • Discourage toxic positivity: Generally, optimism is a good thing. But too much positivity can lead teams to overestimate their resources and take on excessive work. Be wary of infecting your task force with toxic positivity and increasing the risk of scope creep or gold plating. Instead, aim to keep your feedback and projections grounded in reality using regular check-ins and resource assessments.
  • Use risk management procedures: Perhaps the client mistakenly asked for the wrong deliverable, or a team member spent days working on an unproductive output. In dire situations, refer to your risk management plan for guidance. Although these plans aren’t specifically for scope creep, they can offer insights into how to deal with extreme situations.

Stop scope creep in its tracks with Roadmunk by Tempo

Make catching and controlling scope creep simpler with roadmapping tools like Roadmunk by Tempo. With your project plan in one place, you can track progress and flag scope concerns before they evolve into expensive mistakes.

Thanks to Roadmunk’s whole-company vision and Jira integration, you have the right tools to instantly inform both team members and stakeholders when a change rears its head. Roadmunk also makes it a breeze to share your roadmaps internally and externally using HTML, PNG, or URL links.