The Causes of Scope Creep & How to Avoid Them

The Causes of Scope Creep & How to Avoid Them
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What two words can send shivers up the spine of even the most experienced project manager or engineer? Scope creep. And it happens all the time. 

A project team outlines the scope of work and designated deliverables, commits to a due date, and maps out the budget accordingly. The project kicks off, and suddenly, new deliverables that the team didn’t initially discuss crawl their way into the project. It seems like a minor adjustment at first, but before you know it, the adjustments delay the project, and the team feels frustrated by the growing amount of work on their plates.

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Project teams of all sizes and experience run into scope creep. While it’s sometimes fully unavoidable, there are some tricks, and best practices project managers can follow to make it a less daunting experience for everyone involved. In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What project scope is in project management
  • What scope creep is and how to spot it
  • Common causes of scope creep
  • How to avoid (or better manage) scope creep

What is the project scope in project management?

In project management, project scope refers to the work the project team needs to do to carry out the project from start to finish. The project scope places boundaries on the project and outlines specific goals and objectives for the work. It defines precisely what the team is trying to achieve, including what they will deliver, when, how the team will do the job, and what success looks like. A clear project scope helps prevent delays and rework, so the team can complete the project on time without going over budget. 

Pro-tip: Defining the project scope is not one person’s responsibility. Sure, project managers play a critical role in pulling the scope together, but for the best results, defining the scope should be a team effort amongst all stakeholders. This ensures all project stakeholders align and are on the same page regarding what to expect.

What is scope creep?

Sometimes referred to as “requirement creep” or “feature creep,” project scope is what happens when project requirements increase and expand throughout the project lifecycle. Scope creep occurs when additional deliverables and requirements sneak their way into the original scope of work. 

For example, suppose you’re on a marketing team supporting a new feature release. As part of the project scope, the marketing team agrees to publish one blog post, run an email newsletter, and post about the new feature two times across all social media channels. Since the feature release is a couple of months away, your team quickly wraps up its deliverables and is ready to go for launch day. 

Or so you thought. The project team returns to the marketing team and asks for an additional ebook highlighting the feature, three PR placements, two more blog posts, and a live webinar—all of which were not part of the original scope. Now, the entire marketing team has to shift priorities to focus on the new deliverables and may miss the deadline for the feature release. Stressful, isn’t it?

When project stakeholders (or others) add additional tasks that the team did not initially account for at the beginning of the project, it can lead to delays, rework, low quality, or incorrect deliverables. When the project deliverables exceed the project scope, it can lead to frustration and chaos.

What causes scope creep?

To avoid and prevent scope creep, it’s necessary to understand how it happens in the first place. Below are some of the most common causes of scope creep and how teams get there.

1. An ambiguous or unclear project scope

Consider this: Just because a project scope exists doesn’t mean it’s clear or well-defined. (Worst yet, if no project scope exists, your team will run into trouble!) Misalignment occurs when stakeholders don’t understand their direct roles and responsibilities on projects with ambiguous or unclear project scopes. 

This can occur for various reasons, but poor communication tends to be a culprit. Sometimes poor communication isn’t the fault of any stakeholder, but the project work lacks detail and leads to varying interpretations. In addition to poor communication, a lack of resources may mean the project team doesn’t have much time to dedicate to the project. When resources are spread thin, they can unintentionally leave out details and may skip parts of the scope. 

Project managers can help combat ambiguous or unclear project scopes. The project manager should understand the project requirements clearly as they need to articulate the project scope and share it with the rest of the team. Remember, it’s not the sole responsibility of a project manager to define the scope, but they do play a critical role in capturing it and sharing it accordingly.

Pro-tip: If you’re struggling to capture a clearly defined project scope and working with a large vision and body of work, consider breaking the work down into smaller milestones.

2. Lack of stakeholder engagement and involvement

Developing the project scope is the responsibility of all project stakeholders. In particular, project sponsors play an essential role on project teams and bear the weight of ensuring a project moves forward, and the team completes the work. 

Project sponsors are often overworked, disengaged, or unfocused, be it an executive, department head, or other leader guiding the team. Balancing competing priorities and tending to other responsibilities may distract some stakeholders from being active participants in developing the project scope. If they don’t dedicate time to helping outline the scope up front, there’s a much higher risk that they may try to change the project’s direction down the road. 

Pro-tip: Beware of project sponsors leaving decisions and work commitments fully up to the project team without their buy-in. Try to obtain a verbal or written acknowledgment of the scope from all project stakeholders, even if some key stakeholders don’t help develop it.

3. Lack of boundaries (and change control processes)

We’ve all been there. It’s natural to want to impress your colleagues, manager, leadership team, or your client. But doing so shouldn’t come at the cost of a lack of boundaries or change control processes. 

Teams use change control processes to manage change requests for projects and initiatives, and they’re often part of a larger change management plan. The purpose of change control processes is to allow stakeholders to request changes to the scope of work for review and approval. Change requests are not always guaranteed (unless you structure your process that way).

A change control process formalizes the path to change the scope of work rather than accepting them as they come. Teams should customize their approach to meet the needs of their team so that it may involve many steps or only a few. Either way, this prevents stakeholders from requesting a “small tweak” that leads to a completely expanded scope. Change control processes help set necessary boundaries with clients and stakeholders, emphasizing that the team should only alter project goals and objectives if necessary.

Pro-tip: Discuss change processes and boundaries with all stakeholders when kicking off a project. Setting expectations early leaves no room for interpretation and sneaky requests down the road. 

4. Lengthy project timelines

The longer the deadline for completion, the more time there is to add additional requests, features, and changes to the project’s original scope. It’s natural to want to squeeze in more work (have you heard of Parkinson’s Law?), especially if the work outlined in the original scope is complete or near completion long before the deadline. 

Ultimately, longer timelines give stakeholders more time to reinvent their ideas and grow them, adjust directions based on market changes, and identify new ways to stand out against competitors. While all of these factors can be great for business reasons, sudden changes—big and small—can cause team members to feel stressed, overwhelmed, annoyed, and frustrated. If you must set a deadline far out in the future, ensure you have proper policies and processes that will encourage the team to stay within the scope.

Pro-tip: Create a sense of urgency by breaking down larger bodies of work into smaller phases. Shorter deadlines leave less wiggle room for accommodations and modifications.

5. Unrealistic objectives and timelines

Sometimes project objectives and timelines are crystal clear, but the team could only achieve them in an alternate universe. If the project objectives are unrealistic and your team cannot realistically achieve them in the set amount of time, you may experience scope creep or, worse yet—project failure.

The root cause of scope creep lies in the project team’s ability to successfully plan and manage their plans, which is why unrealistic planning sets project teams up to fail. If the project plan is unrealistic, it’s nearly impossible to identify and manage scope creep. Setting expectations and turning down changes can be challenging when the rest of the project is off track and unstable.

Pro-tip: Avoid the planning fallacy and encourage team members to use various time management strategies to manage their work. Build in more time than you think is necessary to account for potential issues and blockers.

Examples of scope creep and how it appears

One of the most well-known examples of scope creep occurred in the heart of Denver, Colorado. In the early 1990s, an innovative automated baggage system delayed the opening of Denver International Airport by 16 months. The project not only extended past its deadline but also cost the city $560 million over budget, and the project ultimately ended in a massive failure.

Many elements contributed to the failure of this project, including a plan that was too complex, an unrealistically short deadline, ignored timeline concerns, excluded key stakeholders during decision-making, and significant redesign requests following feedback from airlines. With these factors at play, the city of Denver created the ultimate recipe for scope creep failure.

While this is a dramatic example of scope creep, the unfortunate truth is that it can show up in small and large ways in any of your projects at any time. Here are some other examples of how scope creep might appear:

  • Step into the shoes of a software developer. For the next two-week sprint, the team prioritized fixing two bugs and adding one new feature. At the beginning of week two, the client asks the team to add three additional new features during this sprint. 
  • Suppose your manager asks you to help update a process in which client contracts move from the sales team to the legal team for signature. The small process change includes adding another reviewer before the legal team signs off. As you work on updating the documentation, department heads come to you and ask you to update tangentially-related processes, thus overhauling the entire lead generation to the signed contracts path. Phew!

How to avoid scope creep

Sometimes scope creep is inevitable—and not all changes are bad ones. A slight shift in the original scope of work may be the best move for the project, and that’s okay. But in many cases, there are some things you and your team can do to avoid and manage scope creep for the best-case scenario.

1. Document and acknowledge the project scope as a team.

Define the scope of work with input from all necessary project stakeholders (including clients and end users as required), and document every part of it. Documentation is crucial when establishing the project scope and having references throughout the project lifecycle.

Project managers should transfer everything they know about the project scope into a work breakdown structure or some other form of document that all stakeholders can refer back to as work kicks off. Another perk to writing the scope down is that if it’s too extensive or additional work starts to creep in, the project team can prioritize or trim the list down if you capture all expected deliverables and requirements in one place.  

In addition to documenting the project scope clearly and accurately, project managers should never assume all stakeholders are aligned. Don’t make the mistake of making verbal agreements without a paper trail or thinking everyone is on the same page. 

Once you’ve captured the project scope, documented it, and shared it with the project team, ask for an acknowledgment or agreement to move forward. As the project progresses, check in and review the documentation over time to ensure long-term agreement on the scope.

2. Don’t skip out on change control processes.

Instead of trying to prevent change from happening, you’ll spend your time better outlining the proper processes to make change requests so you are more prepared when it inevitably comes up. This might look like formal and thorough change control processes or a simple Google Form requesting a change. No matter what it looks like for you and your team, the critical part is establishing how stakeholders can request change and what they can expect.

Creating change control processes for your project should include how a stakeholder can request changes, who will review change requests, who has the authority to approve changes, and how the project manager will notify the rest of the project team of change approvals. Need some inspiration? Try these templates:

3. Create a culture of vulnerability that welcomes feedback.

It’s not uncommon for disconnects to exist between the project requirements and what the subject matter experts can achieve in a given amount of time. To no one’s fault, sometimes teams are ambitious, or leaders excitedly ask for more than a team can deliver on without causing stress. 

Subject matter experts, or those responsible for delivering the work, can often spot unreasonable timelines based on their previous experiences and expertise. When people don’t feel comfortable speaking up, they let scope creep slide and deal with the ramifications—stress, over budget, inability to meet deadlines—instead. 

To combat this, organizations can prioritize creating a culture of vulnerability, encouraging openness, and welcoming their team members to raise issues as they arise. It’s essential to avoid penalizing individuals for “going against the grain” and raising their opinions. Ask team members if they genuinely believe project goals and timelines are realistic, and check in with them over time to understand if there are any external factors or dependencies impacting the work.

4. Aim to over-communicate.

In project management, you can never communicate “too much.” Scope creep can unintentionally occur when there are communication gaps between teams or all necessary stakeholders aren’t involved in conversations. It’s best to connect often, communicate through multiple channels, and repeat the same messages in case someone misses them.

Project managers are the central communication point for project work amongst teams, which is why they need to stay connected and updated on progress. Schedule team meetings, or consider leveraging Slack bots for quick touchpoints. The Project Management Institute (PMI)  also recommends creating a communications management plan to organize and document the types of communications that will occur throughout the project lifecycle.

Going forward

Scope creep occurs when additional deliverables creep their way into an initial scope of work. Ambiguous project scopes, lack of stakeholder engagement, lack of boundaries, lengthy project timelines, and unrealistic objectives can lead to scope creep. Sometimes changing the scope of a project is necessary for better outcomes, but it doesn’t have to be a painful process. Effectively manage scope creep with project documentation, established change control processes, honest and vulnerable work cultures, and over-communication. 

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes on a productivity and career-related topics for Insider, Clockwise, G2 and other publications.

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