Spinning risk into gold

Issue 4 of 5: Yanking off scope creep’s cloak of mystery

This is the fourth instalment of our mini-series on how empowered PMs turn scope creep and risk into gold.

Issue 1: How healthy agencies handle risk and rein in scope creep
Issue 2: Is your agency reactive or proactive?
Issue 3: How PMs spin risk into gold
Issue 4: Yanking off scope creep’s cloak of mystery
Issue 5: A note about the future (your PMs can see it)

In our last newsletter, we tore open the juice packet and poured over the topic of risks and red flags. How red flags warn you that risks are probably going to happen and what your PMs do to warn you before they hit. But what happens when you straight-up ignore your Cassandras and your risks? Scope creep. You’ve probably all heard of it.

Scope creep: doing more work for the same amount of time or money.

And in case you’re bored, scope creep comes in four enticing flavours to really eff up your day:

  • Business creep (your clients or team change their minds or relationship with the project, or weren’t vetted well to begin with)
  • Effort creep (no matter how hard your team works, they can’t make progress)
  • Hope creep (you believe you can meet deadlines or outcomes that you can’t, then you lie about it)
  • Feature creep (your need to add shinier, cooler features or embellishments when no one is actually asking you to do that. Seriously. Stop.)

And as you read this, you’re probably thinking that scope creep is the devil. And sometimes it is. Scope creep…

  • Interrupts cash flow
  • Prematurely dashes the brains out of your projects and relationships
  • Creates confusion and frustration on your team
  • Damages trust
  • Ping pongs team resources around
  • Yanks project managers from project to project and burns them out
  • Blurs company and project priorities
  • Makes for quick PMs exits (they get poached)
  • Can shutter your business

But my measured take is that scope creep isn’t actually bad. When you understand its nuances and get in front of it, scope creep can also become another fantastic indicator of risk. It can wake you up, bolster your team, and help you spin risk into gold. It’s like you get another chance to stop the snowball from turning into an avalanche when you recognize the texture of the snow landing on your mitten.

Initial red flag: It’s snowing hard. > Initial risk: There could be an avalanche. > Initial reaction: Nope, I don’t want to go outside.

Scope creep: Umm, that snowball is growing! > Second reaction: This is going to become an avalanche, let’s eat the snowball. > Result: risk is mitigated and no bears lose their furry lives on this hill.

I don’t know if you’re into the theory of the multiverse where you get multiple branching paths to your reality, but let’s say it exists. Then, as in life, you get multiple chances to reclaim your project path. You can reset relationships and have hard conversations that heal it every step of the way, even if you made a saltier choice yesterday that didn’t serve you. Sometimes, when you wobble really far and nearly fall on your face, it’s hard to collect yourself, but every single event is another chance to set it right. Don’t give that up. Your PMs instinctively want to reclaim that power. Let them.

Here’s another scope creep example to tickle your brain. This one’s about effort creep:


Team got busy with other tasks and now has to switch focus

Your team was working frantically to meet another deadline or got distracted and started focusing on the wrong priorities. Now you're stuck in a situation where one project or task bumps out another and you're running out of time and/or budget. This usually happens when people are over capacity and priorities are unclear and shifting constantly.

Have a meeting with your team to realign priorities and thank them for their hard work. Make sure to get their input about ways to reduce the scope of the project. In the future, work at anticipating the barriers you'll face and build in appropriate breaks and buffers. Clients often suffer from this problem too, so tack on extra time for reviews and approvals as well as client content production and testing.

Like death and taxes

Risks and red flags are inevitable, and I’m here to assure you that scope creep is a natural part of running projects and working with other human beings, too. I love you, but humans are the worst at gauging capacity, timelines, and scope. We stink at it. It’s actually a wonder any of our projects launch on time or budget (most don’t). However, the key is recognizing your power to change human patterns, which of course all ties back to creating safety in your environments, talking about risk openly, and creating agreements that help you action change at an organizational level (something I love to talk about—message me if you want more deets).

You don’t have to be afraid of scope creep. You can look it in the face and enfold it with open arms. Let it melt. Allow your fear to dissolve, too. Set some healthy boundaries for your team and projects, and—I sound like a broken record at this point—be proactive.

Hello, scope creep—my old friend

When PMs are confident in how to recognize and reclaim—not resist—scope creep, your team will thrive and your cashflow will pour forth. Spotting red flags early-on and changing the timeline, deadline, or budget of a project is sometimes enough. Other times it means having toe-crunching conversations with clients about how the things they want just aren’t possible or reasonable for that matter. A supported PM will feel less afraid of these convos than their unsupported peers. A great PM is attuned to the nuance of scope creep and its impact.

I’ll say it again: agencies need to trust in their PMs. Give them access to the financials. Train them on the levers and dials they can pull. Include them in sales calls. You will have a more profitable agency when you treat your PMs like the crystal balls they are.

PMs, you are magical. Show your teams what you’re made of. Train them to spot red flags and risks. Run alignment exercises and work to build deep trust with your team. Run educational workshops about the different kinds of scope creep, and let them gleefully shout the warning signs for each. You don’t need to scream “fire!” until your voice and soul are hoarse. You just need to share your passion and teach people how to pour water on the flames.

Up next

Almost done. Next week, we’ll wax poetic about why great PMs are your crystal balls.

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