What Is Scope Creep—and Why Does It Matter?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Don’t let scope creep overextend your team. Learn to avoid it by understanding why it happens and how smart planning can stop it before it starts.

[Featured Image] Two workers are analyzing business plans with a laptop on the desk.

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.

Scope creep: A classic example

Scope creep can happen in small and large projects. In February of 2022, the Trans Mountain Corporation increased the cost of its enormous pipeline by 70 per cent. What was once supposed to cost $12.6 billion has ballooned to $21.4 billion and still won’t be completed until 2023, at least according to the most recent reports. The pipeline has always inspired controversy, but the oil and gas industry is too beholden to the project to let scheduling setbacks prevent it from finishing the project [1]. 

How did Trans Mountain get here? Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and flooding in BC have set the project back, two forces the corporation have no control over. But other factors that have postponed the project—from the permitting process to route changes around areas that are special for cultural or environmental reasons—might have been reduced with proper planning to fight scope creep.


How does scope creep happen?

Many factors can cause scope creep. The Project Management Institute lists five common reasons scope creep can happen [2]. 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.

How to stop scope creep

Stopping scope creep before it starts helps ensure that a project stays on track by adhering to its predefined objectives and timelines. It also enhances resource management, allowing teams to avoid unexpected costs and allocate their time and effort more effectively toward achieving the project's intended outcomes.

1. Prevent scope creep before your project begins.

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.

2. Address scope creep when it happens.

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.

Build up your project management skills

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.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources


CBC. “Cost of Trans Mountain pipeline expansion soars 70% to $21.4 billion, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/trans-mountain-pipeline-expansion-calgary-1.6357174.” Accessed March 1, 2023.

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.