When we take on a project for a client, everyone needs to be clear as to what will be done, what it will cost and by when it will be completed. The client needs to feel confident they are getting value for money and we need to be confident we are making a profit. Most of the time it works out well for everyone, but what about those times when it doesn’t? When the project never seems to end, when there’s always ‘just one more thing’, when the client feels we haven’t done enough?
It can be frustrating for everyone when this happens, but there are ways to guard against it and to manage expectations. Let’s take a closer look.
The scope of a project covers the results that will be achieved and/or products that will be delivered, the resources that will be required, and the deadline by which it will be completed.
Scope creep, also known as ‘kitchen sink syndrome’, occurs when the initial agreed scope of a project becomes affected in some way so that what is now being delivered is more than was initially agreed.
Say you have three team members working on a project that is expected to take seven weeks to complete. Ann has two weeks in which to complete her tasks, after which Rob steps in. He has four weeks of work to complete. Once he is halfway through, Chris can start on his tasks, which will take three weeks and see the project through to completion. All three staff members are scheduled to move straight on to other projects when their work on this one is complete.
Now imagine Ann is required to change the scope of her duties, resulting in her work taking an extra two days. Not only has this project’s final deadline moved back two days, but the start dates of the projects all three are scheduled to work on next have moved back by two days, and Chris and Rob potentially spend two days twiddling their thumbs.
If the scope of Rob’s contribution is also increased, resulting in an extra three days of work in his initial fortnight, it all moves back again. More wasted time, higher costs, more projects other than this one impacted, missed deadlines, potential unhappy clients, staff getting stressed and perhaps trying to cut corners to make up at least some of the time lost.
This is a very simple example, but even here you can see the problem with scope creep and the effect it can have on a business.
The bigger the project, the more prone it is to scope creep, and if scope creep is allowed to run unchecked, it can cause the failure of the project, the loss of the client and a big dent in your reputation.
There are a number of things that can contribute to scope creep that you can pre-empt and guard against. These include:
- An unclear scope outline – there’s not enough detail in the documentation, leading to ambiguity.
- ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ – clients who don’t know exactly what they want, but expect endless iterations until they get it.
- ‘Can you just …?’ or ‘I thought you’d do this anyway’ – clients who try to add extras on without having to pay, or who claim to have assumed certain things would automatically be included.
- Chats ‘off the record’ – informal discussions between project staff and clients, in which undocumented promises are made to include extra work.
- Gold-plating – adding things in that you believe will boost customer satisfaction but without either costing them or checking that the customer wants or values them.
Keeping scope creep in check
Key to avoiding – or at the very least, minimising – scope creep is having a sound process in place for the discussion, planning and execution of projects.
This process starts with the initial project discussions. Make sure you understand the required outcomes – don’t make assumptions. Ask questions, and get the right people involved, especially if you have people with relevant specialist knowledge.
Ensure all findings and agreements are distilled into the documentation outlining the scope of the project. As well as defining what the outcomes will be, bear in mind that there may be times when you need to say what will not be included.
Manage the project closely, using project planning tools and techniques. Gantt charts, for example, can give you an at-a-glance overview of what a project looks like. You can see tasks and deadlines, and you can plot those events that are crucial to bringing the project in on time.
Have regular meetings to make sure the team and any other relevant stakeholders are kept up to date on progress. Have systems in place to allow people to flag up issues, and to request changes.
Sometimes it’s necessary to change the scope of a project, perhaps due to issues arising or learning that what was believed to be the case is not. The golden rule here is that should this happen, you make sure everyone understands how the changes will be handled. Assess whether they are a part of this project or should be a separate project that follows on when this one has been completed. If they are to be incorporated into the existing project, assess the impact and renegotiate the budget and/or deadline, as appropriate.
What it all boils down to is that we have to accept that sometimes the scope of a project will change, and that’s fine, these things happen. Businesses and projects are dynamic, and sometimes organic. However, we need to be alert to these changes and to handle them appropriately, otherwise scope creep can cost us dearly.