Scope creep happens when your project begins to expand beyond what it was originally intended to do. Dealing with it entails smart planning and knowing how to respond when it does happen.
Scope outlines the boundaries of a project—what must be completed, whom it must be delivered to, the budget, timeline, and resources. Scope creep is when any of the elements of the scope begin to change once the project has started. For example, let’s say a project to add three new features to a software program grows into a project to add five new features. Or a construction project to renovate a building needs to include updates to the foundation after some discovered flaws. Both of these instances would be considered scope creep.
Scope creep can cause a project to go over budget, extend beyond its deadline, and in some cases, project risk to increase. Sometimes scope creep is uncontrollable, and part of being an effective project manager is knowing how best to deal with inevitable changes. But trying to prevent it before it happens, and knowing how to handle it when it does, is key to setting up a successful project.
Read more: How to Manage Project Risk: A 5-Step Guide
Scope creep can happen in small and large projects. One classic example of scope creep is the Denver International Airport’s intention to automate its baggage handling system for its three terminals in 1995. The project took around sixteen months longer than planned, and went over-budget by $560 million, despite the deliverables falling far short of the original scope—only one baggage system at one terminal was automated, for only one airline.
These drastic consequences were said to be caused by a few factors. First, when evaluators estimated that the project would take four years, city officials insisted on sticking to the original two-year timeline, already jeopardizing the chances of the project being completed with successful delivery. Secondly, airlines were not asked for feedback until the project had already begun, which meant including their new requests caused the project planners to backtrack and lose valuable time and resources.
Many factors can cause scope creep. The Project Management Institute lists five common reasons scope creep can happen . These are:
Unclear scope definition: Projects that are spelled out solely in business terms or lack specific details can create unclear expectations and misinterpretations.
Not having formal scope or requirements management: This can happen if the project’s decision-makers step back after setting out the initial scope. Involving important decision-makers throughout the process becomes important here.
Unclear requirements: If requirements are too high-level and not clearly defined, or new stakeholders appear and add their own requirements, scope creep can occur.
Lack of sponsorship and stakeholder involvement: Disinterested stakeholders or sponsors can lead to less communication, which can then cause scope creep.
Project length: The longer a project lasts, the more chances there are for business changes to occur, stakeholders to change priorities, and competitors to change the playing field. Larger projects can be broken down into smaller subprojects to minimize project length.
A big part of keeping scope creep from happening involves good project planning. This entails:
Setting well-defined goals: Goals should be SMART—that is, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Make sure everybody on the team is aware of requirements, deliverables, and other details.
Creating a change control process: Sometimes change is inevitable. This means that you can plan for it as best as you can. Set up a system in which changes can be requested by team members, approved by relevant parties, and recorded.
Involving all relevant stakeholders in the planning phase: Looping in the stakeholders of a project in the planning phase will help you understand what each stakeholder expects and requires, and allow you to set realistic goals that the stakeholders agree on. Make a schedule to communicate with stakeholders and sponsors to keep them involved throughout the project—for example, by making plans to send out daily updates on the project’s progress, or setting up weekly meetings.
Breaking down large projects into subprojects: As we mentioned above, the longer a project is, the more chances there are for scope creep to happen. If you’re tackling a large project, consider breaking it into smaller projects so that you have a clear map of immediate needs, and details don’t get overlooked.
Not all scope creep is bad—in fact, it’s often inevitable. Here’s how to make decisions for your project once you’ve identified that scope creep has happened.
Determine the consequences. Think about how this affects your project. One way to approach this is to consider the project management triangle. This is a model that shows that the quality of the outcome is determined by three constraints—scope, budget, and time. It can be summed up by the saying, “Good, fast, and cheap: pick two.” If you don’t want the quality of the project to suffer, changing one of these constraints will result in a change in one or both of the others. Will the scope creep extend the expected timeline of your project? Will it increase the cost? Knowing how it will affect your resources is important in determining how to deal with it.
Pick your priorities. Once you’ve determined how scope creep will affect your project, decide which constraints are your priorities. If a client has a firm launch date for a product, you’ll want to prioritize time, which might mean you’ll have to increase your budget. Or if the budget is non-negotiable, consider extending the timeline for the project. If you expand the scope, but wish to maintain the original cost and timeline for the project, keep in mind that the quality of the finished product might suffer.
Scope creep is only one of the many challenges project managers should expect to deal with in shepherding a successful project through to completion. If you’re interested in learning more about how to tackle project management challenges, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.
Scope creep is usually thought of as bad because it can increase the timeline and workload of a project, overwhelm team members, and distract from the intended deliverables. There may be instances, however, when scope creep is good. Depending on how project managers recognize, handle, and communicate about minor refinements to a project, scope creep could have benefits for both the project management team and the client.
For example, scope creep that results from a clients’ requests for changes could contribute to a good long-term relationship with the client, a better finished product, and even increased sales and profit. Keep in mind that project managers should always weigh the costs of project changes against any perceived benefits.
Scope creep and gold plating are similar in that they both refer to instances when a project’s elements begin to change once a project starts, potentially resulting in added work, cost, and time to completion. Scope creep refers to project changes that happen when a team adjusts to meet clients’ requests. Gold plating refers to when a project management team intentionally adds features to a project, so as to over-deliver or offer “freebies.”
1. Project Management Institute. "Top five causes of scope creep ... and what to do about them, https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/top-five-causes-scope-creep-6675." Accessed January 10, 2022.
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