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The four types of scope creep, exam­ples, and how to avoid their project impact

The mighty and reckless scope creep: or as we like to call it, surprise changes to your scope that have you doing more work in the same time and/or for the same amount of money. It’s a sneaky thing. It’ll walk right up behind you and put you in a chokehold before you can turn your head. Even the best project leads struggle with its insidious fallout. So, what do you know when scope comes a-knocking? First, you must understand the beast.

How does scope creep impact the project and its environment?

  • Goals and outcomes change
  • Stakeholder relationships and alignment suffer
  • Project scope, timeline, and budget stretch out
  • Project slows down/pauses
  • People lose faith in a successful launch
  • Teams get stressed and prickly or people may quit
  • More, (often) risky projects come in to close revenue gaps from failed projects
  • The cycle repeats

Who pays for the mistake?

Client facing org?

  • Your team is to blame for the scope creep… eat the time and budget it takes to complete your project.
  • No one is to blame…if your client is asking for additional features or complexity, your organization should be paid for any additional work required

Internal facing org (aka you can’t fire stakeholders)?

  • Your team is to blame…you will pay through delays and low enthusiasm or burnout
  • No one is to blame…you will still pay through delays, disengagement, and burnout

Meet the four types of scope creep…

Business creep

Business scope creep happens when your organization or other project stakeholders change their mind, understanding, roles, process, or priorities related to the project scope—or when you fail to properly understand your business environment and make requirement assumptions (aka fix the problem before you understand it).

Watch for:

  • Change minds or direction
  • Change of goals or outcomes
  • Change of priorities
  • Change of people or processes
  • Failure to understand stakeholder needs

Business creep examples

ProblemCauseFix

Promises don’t align with project reality

Sometimes client facing teams will experience a situation where their business developer sold an impossible project or a high level stakeholder wants to impress his market by creating a fantasy project. This sets the project up for failure as the team literally can’t build what they’ve been contracted to do.

Have a conversation with the decision makers on the project and buy some time. It’s possible to add additional budget and time to this project, but only if there’s a lot of trust. Be clear that you have learned new things about the requirements and those impact what you can and will build. Then fire your business developer. Just kidding: work with them to get alignment on sales criteria for future projects. If your senior stakeholders are driving these impossible requests and no one is having any fun at work, you may want to think about how that aligns with your own goals as a human and jump ship.

New faces at the table

New faces mean new opinions and sometimes those mean new priorities and goals. This often leads to scope creep and deviation from the original requirements.

Add additional time and budget for onboarding new faces. Get alignment for goals and outcomes and determine if scope (including timeline/budgets) need to shift. If those faces are on your team, have your new teammates shadow before picking up any official work and make sure they have clear priorities and context (so they don’t tank your budget). You will likely eat some budget with new internal faces joining the project, especially if they’re replacing others.

Effort creep

Effort creep looks like wheels spinning in the mud. This type of scope creep creates a situation where no matter how much effort your team puts in, you can’t make any progress. You can’t seem to get any closer to the finish line. This usually means no additional budget or time negotiated.

Think about how effort creep affects priority: a high priority item begins to decrease in value as time passes (high impact tasks become high effort tasks, non-urgent tasks become urgent as schedules drag). This, in turn, creates an incredible amount of pressure on the team and contributes to breakdowns in trust and communication as folks scramble to finish and project leads nervously check on the status. Anxiety worsens and productivity drops. People cut corners or lie about progress. It’s terrible.

Watch for:

  • Skills or knowledge shortage
  • Over-optimism about the work involved
  • Priorities shifting on the team side

Psst: project leads are notorious for effort creep. They want everything to be perfect and everyone to be happy all the time. The info below should probably hit home. We all struggle with perfectionism at some point, but we can’t let it tank our projects.

Effort creep examples

ProblemCauseFix

Overly optimistic estimates

Teams often underestimate the level of effort required to complete a task. It’s human nature. When these tasks are new or haven’t been broken down or researched thoroughly, effort creep is a natural result. Sometimes owners/business developers contribute to this because they make the estimates on the team’s behalf without knowing the nuances of the scope. Perfectionism is a classic example: when is something truly ‘done’?

Good is better than perfect. Have a tough conversation as soon as possible about the state of the scope with internal and external stakeholders. You need to come clean. Rescope the project with the people doing the work and find out if you can support any pieces by:a. Bringing in additional talent (ask your teammate first)b. Giving your teammate a break to think about the problem (you can position this as strategic expertise)c. Consider alternative solutions that simplify scope and complexity (is there a simpler or better way to solve this problem?)You may have to eat some of the project budget if you don’t have proper clauses in your contract. Consider a compromise on one small item of scope and renegotiate the rest if you can.

Lack of skills or knowledge to complete the work

Every time you build a new product, the technology you use is often outdated well before it launches. Chalk it up to the exponential growth of tech. This usually means you have to learn new technologies or add-ons or approaches every time you start another project. Think about how teams estimate or scope for work they’ve never done before: they can’t do it well (and that’s okay).

Consider taking a more agile or flexible approach to the scope so you can spend time learning. Build in more research time to learn the tool or technology (maybe treat some of that budget as professional development rather than billing directly to the client if you’re not confident in outcomes). Even better? Say no to projects that take you further away from your educational goals or don’t align with your expertise. If you’re really interested in a new technology like VR, try something small first and get support from experts if you can.

Hope creep

A type of scope creep where you continue to believe (aka lie to yourself, your team, or your clients or other decision-makers) that you can meet your deadlines, requirements, or outcomes when you can’t.

This type of scope creep happens because of dauntless optimism and a lack of trust between stakeholders. Nobody wants to let anyone down, so everyone lets everyone down. Vicious irony. Hope creep ruins stakeholder relationships and leads to that d-word you never want to hear: disappointment. The solution? Quit lying and start the delicate process of building trust in an open learning environment rife with human mistakes. It’s okay to make them.

Watch for:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Inaccurate statements
  • Disguising or obfuscating the truth
  • Denial of reality (Everything’s fine.)
  • Weird looking reports or metrics (like timesheets)

Here’s a classic and hilarious example of hope creep. Worth a watch (video, 7:30 min):

Requirements gathering

Hope creep examples

ProblemCauseFix

Stakeholders are scared of screwing up or disappointing others

Aka your team or other decision makers have Imposter Syndrome and are afraid to be honest about what they’re up to in case it falls short of expectations. This happens when people on the team put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect. It also happens when middle managers are scared that they might lose their power or be trampled by others who are higher on the ladder. Hope creep naturally oozes out of people’s need for approval and acceptance.

Talk openly with teams and external stakeholders about mistakes, failures, and working together for continuous improvement. Focus less on nailing it the first time, and more on listening and sharing collaboratively to prioritize the right things. The first draft shouldn’t be perfect, but your team and clients need you to help them see and genuinely believe that. This is reinforced through your organization’s culture.

Project leads don’t have a good system for communicating needs or progress

Oops, maybe it’s been a few weeks since you touched base with your client—maybe you were waiting for your team to give you a progress report. Now you find out your team is behind and your client is angry. Hope creep just cropped up.

This problem needs a process. Consistent and regular communication that highlights both the progress and barriers gives stakeholders a realistic idea of how projects flow (there will always be bumps, best to let them know).

Feature creep (gold plating)

Feature creep is a type of scope creep that results from a desire for perfectionism, distinction, or an overwhelming need to please others. Feature creep also happens if requirements are foggy and the team fills them in with whatever assumptions fill the gap (aka I don’t know so I’ll do what I know).

Gold plating happens when you give in and add unnecessary features to your product when asked and even when nobody requested them. You and your team have full control over whether or not you will complete these features.

Watch for:

  • Adding ‘just one more thing’
  • Pleasing decision-makers over the health of the team
  • Doing ‘favours’ for stakeholders repeatedly
  • Requests coming in from multiple people and places (with no clear process)

Pssst: Feature creep only happens when your team relents to adding features. It’s usually internal and not actually caused by external stakeholders. Yes, your stakeholders/clients might have requested a bunch of zingy new features, but you as the project lead, you retain the right to say no, delay that feature, or charge more to prioritize it. Remember that nugget, wise leaders. You have all the power here. Don’t give in to gold plating pressure.

Feature creep examples

ProblemCauseFix

Stakeholders keep asking for more features

Classic feature creep. Stakeholders will always get excited and want to change and add more things. It’s practically in our DNA to want to improve things constantly. They may also want to see if you’ll bend a little and throw in a few freebies. The problem is, unplanned changes mean no additional time or budget to do them. Companies can’t survive on goodwill alone. Gold plating can sink you one change at a time.

Use your scripts. If you know the request is out of scope, immediately respond that you can add this to the ideas pile for future since you want to maintain project priorities. If you’re not sure if something’s out of scope, buy some time to chat with your team. Chances are, the request is out of scope and you can shelf it for a later phase and additional budget. If the request is in scope and doesn’t shift priorities, look at your available schedule and slot it in when it makes sense.

You really want to impress that new client or the entire world

Organizations commonly make the mistake of bending at angles to accommodate new clients as a way to impress them and make them stick around. While creating a specialized experience and caring environment goes a long way, setting yourself up as a regular discount partner does not bode well for sustainable long term work. In fact, surprise! It often leads to your organization bleeding out on scope.

If you really want to impress your clients, understand their business goals and create something valuable for their audience. That’s how you get respect. But if you’re super nice and want to show you care, agree with your team on one nice thing you will do for them—something that doesn’t harm the scope and something that you can likely bill in future phases later. One nice thing goes a long way. Nice things every day create expectations.

Psst: Notice the difference between flexible and vague language in your documentation. Flexible language gives you the space to explain exactly how you’ll handle surprises or unknowns and outline clear consequences. Vague language doesn’t indicate how you’ll deal with these surprises and makes any expectations around how you’ll handle it unclear. Always aim to increase flexibility and clarity.

For example, promising ‘we’ll test in all the latest browsers’ is vague, not flexible. It’s not clear which browsers you’ll test in and there’s no plan for what happens if you need to test in others. On the other hand, the next statement gives you wiggle but is also clear: ‘we’ll determine which browsers your audience base uses and prioritize this testing order to accommodate for a maximum of 80% of this base (any other browsers you’d like to prioritize can be negotiated outside of this contract).’

See the difference? You’ve got the power to negotiate and prioritize to fit the goals of the audience based on research you’ll conduct. You can make decisions based on your research.

Scope creep tips

How to avoid scope creep

  • Talk about scope more often and more collaboratively
  • Work together on estimating
  • Vett your project’s red flags upfront and throughout
  • Reduce the scope of your projects or charge a premium for bells and whistles
  • Start getting decision-makers to think about ‘phase two’ right at the beginning

How to triage your scope creep

Know when to say yes, no, or later

To triage your scope you have to weigh its priorities. Make sure you and your stakeholders are aligned on how (un)important this change will be. Then weigh its usefulness:

  • Dismiss anything that is not fundamentally in line with project goals
  • Downgrade or dismiss anything that is high effort low impact
  • Next, delay anything that is high effort, high impact unless it’s central to the functionality
  • Prioritize anything that is low effort and high impact to stakeholders. These add up to the highest value with the least disruption to your schedule

How to create clear documentation

Here are some useful tips for creating easy to read documents that won’t cause eyes to glaze over. These will really help you reduce that slovenly scope creep.

  • Use plain language (jargon creates misunderstandings and room for misinterpretation)
  • Use clear headings and descriptions for each section
  • Use bold and italic for key phrases and ideas (e.g., deadlines, reminders, exclusions, substitutions, changes)
  • Keep bullets short and sweet
  • Start bullets with verbs
  • Avoid passive voice (e.g., ‘Changes will be accepted by Dana Smith’ should be ‘Dana Smith approves changes.’)

For a killer guide to ‘writing good,’ check out this helpful grammar guide we put together: Dessert Island; True confessions of a marketing copywriter

Scope creep resources

Here are some helpful scope creep resources to help you avoid project pain:

From Coax
Scope Creep banner

Scope creep: the thing that never sleeps

Lessons in spotting, stopping, and avoiding the monsterous issues that derail your projects

by Rachel Gertz

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