What Is Scope Creep in Project Management?

Updated Jan 14, 2023.
What Is Scope Creep in Project Management

We have all been there. You start a project that seems clear enough, but somewhere along the way, the project expands outside of what you had planned for.

You find yourself doing more work than you expected, and eventually, the project ends up taking more time and resources than you had planned for.

If you’ve ever found yourself in such a situation, you were a victim of something known as scope creep.

Scope creep affects a lot of projects, and in some cases, it can lead to project failure.

But why does scope creep occur? What are the causes of scope creep? And is there anything that can be done to manage scope creep?

Below, we’ll answer all these questions and help you prevent scope creep from affecting your project.

Before we get into that, however, let’s understand what exactly scope creep means.

What Is Scope Creep In Project Management?

Scope creep is a situation where new features, deliverables, and tasks are added to a project after it has started, without being accounted for in the project’s time or budget.

Let’s say, for instance, you have a project that requires you to create a product with 5 key features. Once the project is underway, however, the client changes their requirements from 5 to 10 key features. This is an example of scope creep.

Since the new changes were not accounted for at the start of the project, the extra work that needs to be done ends up affecting the project cost, budget, schedule, and resource allocation.

Without proper management, scope creep becomes a lose-lose situation for all parties involved in the project.

Clients become unhappy because the project is taking longer than expected, the project team becomes demoralized because they have to contend with the increased workload, while the company is forced to do more work with a limited budget, which can lead to losses.

Main Causes Of Scope Creep (And How To Eliminate Them)

Scope creep can be caused by a variety of reasons. Below are some of the most common…

1. Unclear Scope Definition

Having a clear definition of a project’s scope is crucial in delivering the project successfully and avoiding scope creep. Without a clear definition of the scope, anything goes, meaning the scope will keep mutating as the project progresses.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a baker, and a client makes an order for a birthday cake, without any other requirements. You gather your ingredients and start preparing the dough.

An hour later, the client calls and asks you to add strawberry topping to the cake. Since you’ve not gotten to this step yet, you oblige to the request. Thirty minutes later, the client calls with another request. They want the cake to be 2kg, rather than 1kg.

Such changes mean that you’ll require more ingredients and more time to make the cake. This kind of scope creep happens because you did not take time to properly define this project’s scope before starting the project.

To avoid such scope creep from happening, you need to properly define the scope of your project right from the start, and ensure that all involved parties have a clear understanding of the scope.

In the above example, clear scope definition means knowing the cake size, flavors, desired toppings, and any additional decorations required before you start the project.

2. Client Requests

This is the most common cause of scope creep. As the project progresses, clients will often come up with extra features and requests that they want to go into the project.

Very often, the changes requested by clients are usually small, which makes it easy to accommodate the changes. With time, however, these small change requests add up and end up affecting the project budget and schedule.

The best way to avoid client requests from affecting the project delivery is to evaluate each change request and determine its significance to the project. If the change doesn’t improve the project deliverables, it is best not to incorporate it.

In the event that the requested change helps improve the project deliverables, evaluate how the change will affect the project budget, schedule, or resource allocation, and communicate this to the client.

If the client still wants the change incorporated into the project, make the necessary adjustments to the project deadline and budget.

3. Poor Estimation

Budgets, timelines, and workflows for projects are usually set based on estimations. Inaccurate estimations can often lead to scope creep, since some aspects of the project may not be accounted for properly.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are working on a project to improve a client’s website. You make estimations based on the features that the client wants added to the website, and start working on the project.

Once the project is underway, you discover that some part of their current code is incompatible with the new features, which means your team will have to rewrite some parts of the existing code.

This is work you had not anticipated and accounted for, yet it has to be done for the project to be completed successfully.

The best way to avoid scope creep due to poor estimation is to get all team members involved in the estimation. When everyone who’ll work on the project gives their input, it becomes easier to make more accurate estimations.

For instance, if you’re working on a website project, make estimations based on input from the UX/UI designers, the backend developers, and the content creators. This will give you a better picture of the work that will go into the project.

Another way to avoid scope creep due to poor estimation is to price the project based on time and resources, rather than using a fixed price. This makes the project more flexible and allows for any extra work to be factored into the budget.

4. Lack Of Client Involvement In The Project

After starting work on a project, some companies prefer working on the project in isolation, and only deliver the finished project to the client for feedback.

The problem with this approach is that the client might want some changes after you deliver the project, resulting in surprises for the project scope at a time when the budget and timelines for the project are limited. Some of the completed work may even have to be redone entirely.

The best way to avoid this is to involve the client throughout each stage of the project. Keep updating the client as you complete each phase and hit each milestone. This can be done using project status reports.

This way, any feedback from the client can be incorporated while the project is still ongoing, rather than having to make the changes after the project has been completed.

5. User Feedback

Some projects involve user testing and feedback for successful delivery of the project. If the user feedback will have an impact on the project’s direction, this can create the risk of scope creep.

Let’s say you’re building an app, for instance. During user testing after creating a beta version of the app, you discover that users want a feature that is not available in the app yet. This might mean having to go back and add the feature, which was not planned for.

The best way to prevent scope creep from user feedback is to gather the feedback as early as possible in the design and development process. This way, you won’t have to make huge changes that significantly affect the project scope.

In the mobile app example, for instance, you can survey users to understand the features they want before you start app development.

If you do this, further user tests and feedback will only lead to minor changes, rather than huge changes that change the direction of the entire project.

6. Third-Party Dependencies

Sometimes, the successful delivery of a project might be reliant on third parties, such as content providers, data providers, SaaS providers, and other external companies.

In such scenarios, there’s always the risk of scope creep from the third party.

For instance, imagine you are working on a website project that requires integration with a service that is provided by a third party. Somewhere along the way, the other company makes changes to their API, making it incompatible with your website.

In such a situation, you’d be forced to make changes to your website to make it compatible with the other company’s API, which is work you had not accounted for at the start of the project.

The best way to avoid third-party dependencies from causing scope creep is to identify all dependencies before starting the project, and determine how such dependencies could possibly affect the project. You can then make plans on how to handle any unexpected changes caused by a third party.

You should also make sure that the client is aware of any such dependencies and their possible impact on the project’s scope.

Tips On How To Manage Scope Creep

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to avoid it, your project might still end up experiencing scope creep.

If this happens, you can still take action to keep the scope creep under control and bring the project back on track. Here are 5 things you can do to manage scope creep.

1. Identify The Scope Creep

Sometimes, people don’t even notice scope creep until it is too late, when there’s nothing that can be done about it. When it is identified early enough, however, scope creep can be dealt with before it becomes a threat to the project.

To manage scope creep, you need to always be alert and on the lookout for the early signs of scope creep, such as confusion between team members about their responsibilities, or milestones being missed.

2. Be Transparent

Once you realize that the project scope is creeping, the next step you need to take is to communicate with all project stakeholders and let them know that the scope is shifting. Everyone involved in the project needs to actively work together to remedy the situation.

3. Determine Impacts

The next step is to determine the impact of the scope creep on the project. How will it affect the project timelines? How will it affect the project budget? Will you require more resources to complete the project?

Using project management software can make it easier to determine how scope creep will affect the project.

4. Descope

Take a look at the project changes extending beyond the initial scope and determine whether they are necessary to the successful completion of the project.

If they are not, you’ll need to discard the changes and prioritize only what was included in the initial scope.

5. Embrace The Changes

If the changes extending the scope are necessary to the successful delivery of the project, embrace them, make adjustments to the project scope to include these changes. Finally, adjust the project timelines, budgets, and resources to account for the change in scope.

Examples Of Scope Creep

1. Berlin Brandenburg Airport

After 15 years of planning, Germany set out to build the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which was expected to be one of the largest airports in the world after completion.

Unfortunately, scope creep, coupled with other problems turned the ambitious project into a massive failure.

Once the airport construction was underway, the general manager of the airport management company, Mr. Schwarz, received reports that air traffic was increasing. With this in mind, he made requests for 2 extra piers to be added to the project to cater for the expected additional air traffic.

The addition of two piers changed the design of the airport’s main terminal from a rectangular shape into a “U” shape, a significant design alteration.

After the first design changes, Mr. Schwarz once again came with another request. This time round, the manager wanted the architect to add a second level to their airport, which would accommodate boutiques, shops, and food courts.

These changes greatly extended the project scope, leading to redesigns, need for new materials, demand for more resources, safety concerns, and so on.

Construction of the airport began in 2006, and was expected to be completed by 2011. The airport finally opened in 2020, after a 9-year delay. From an initial budget of $2.4 billion, the airport project ended up costing over $8 billion.

2. The Big Dig

Internationally nicknamed the Big Dig, Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project was one of the largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects in the United States.

The project had an initial budget of $2.8 billion, and was scheduled for completion in 1998.

It was, however, completed in 2007, with a final budget of $14.6 billion. Scope creep was largely to blame for the Big Dig’s missed deadlines and budget overruns.

The Big Dig’s scope creep can be largely attributed to poor planning and poor estimation.

First, the cost estimates for the project were inaccurate. They did not take into account the effect of inflation, considering that this was a long term project.

Once the project was underway, it ran into many other unexpected challenges. There were archeological discoveries, uncharted utilities, unexpected hazardous materials, weak soil, unanticipated ground-water problems, and unexpected environmental issues.

All these unanticipated problems significantly extended the project scope, eventually increasing the budget almost 7 times and leading to a 9-year delay.

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Anastasia Belyh

Editor at FounderJar

Anastasia has been a professional blogger and researcher since 2014. She loves to perform in-depth software reviews to help software buyers make informed decisions when choosing project management software, CRM tools, website builders, and everything around growing a startup business.

Anastasia worked in management consulting and tech startups, so she has lots of experience in helping professionals choosing the right business software.