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How to avoid scope creep before it starts

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Two people looking at a computer together.

It’s the day before a client project is due. Slowly but surely, you’ve got a trickle of comments coming in. People are asking for a small tweak here or there. Maybe it's adding another inner page, redesigning an email cadence or customizing their chatbot. Wanting to be professional and flexible, your instinct is to try your best to incorporate those edits as fast as possible. Soon enough, you find yourself doing work way beyond what you thought the project would be.

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. It’s scope creep.

Fortunately, you can control scope creep while still meeting your clients’ needs and expectations with the project management practices outlined below.

In this article, we’ll take a broad look at the challenge of scope creep, including:

  • Defining scope creep and how it can impact your projects

  • Identifying common causes of scope creep

  • Proven tips to avoid scope creep

  • Ways you can manage scope creep when it arises

What is scope creep?

The “scope” of a project is all the products, services and results that you and your client have defined and agreed on. Scope “creep” happens when a client’s needs change along the way, without considering their impact to the project’s timeline and budget.

Naturally, being flexible and able to make changes as you go is important for any design project. A client may have new ideas, additional needs or a shift in project management that requires everyone to adapt. Oftentimes, these changes make for a better final product, and adjusting accordingly doesn’t have to mean you’re headed for trouble.

However, scope creep sets in when those changes haven’t been approved by all project stakeholders, and their impact on time, cost and personnel resources hasn’t been factored in.

As an agile professional, you might be thinking, in the scheme of a project, what’s the big deal about doing an extra task or 2? But taking on unauthorized work sets a dangerous precedent for your relationship with your client, and it can also set up agencies and freelancers for workflow problems down the road.

Think about it this way: Working on changes that go beyond a project’s original scope puts an undue burden on your team and budget. Plus, the client will likely expect those changes to be done within the timeline and costs you initially agreed on. As a result, you end up losing focus on the central parts of the project, which can lead to rushed or incomplete work, missed deadlines, stressed staff and ultimately, unhappy clients.

Worst-case scenario, unauthorized work can impact your entire business by slowing the delivery of other projects, decreasing staff productivity and hurting your revenue.

The good news is you can control scope creep with good project management practices and close communication with your clients. You may already be doing some of these, or they may sound like a different approach to web design altogether. Before we look at best practices, let’s identify the most common causes of scope creep.

5 common causes of scope creep

Scope creep impacts every industry, but managing scope is particularly challenging in creative fields like web design.

Here are 5 common causes for scope creep in web design projects:

  1. Poorly defined project requirements

  2. No process for managing changes

  3. No consistent method for your client to request changes

  4. Lack of client involvement

  5. Overdelivery and gold-plating

1. Poorly defined project requirements

Not having a clear-cut blueprint for a project is the most common cause of scope creep. If project requirements aren’t discussed, agreed on and clearly understood by both client and professional before the project gets underway, scope creep is practically guaranteed.

Part of the problem is that clients aren’t thinking about scope. They’re focused on getting a product or service that helps their business succeed. It’s also common for clients to not fully know what they want at first. As their project moves along, they figure out what they’re looking for and slowly but surely, their list of minor tweaks accumulates and pushes the project beyond the original scope.

That puts the responsibility of initiating the project plan of action and defining the scope of the project squarely on the shoulders of the agency or freelancer involved, which we’ll show you how to do in a bit.

2. No consistent feedback process

It’s normal for a client to need changes as a project moves along, but those changes can also open the door to scope creep if there’s no clearly defined process for both client and professional to track and manage them.

Without that kind of process in place, agencies and freelancers run the risk of being overwhelmed with requests for changes and new features throughout the project.

On the other end of the spectrum, a solid client feedback process can also help prevent a phenomenon called “scope kill.” This is what happens when worthwhile changes don’t get made because teams adhere too strictly to the original scope of work. It’s all about finding a workable medium where your process balances structure and flexibility.

Having a feedback process can also help control 2 other causes of scope creep: unrecorded changes, where project teams work on changes without the project manager’s knowledge, and unrequested changes, where teams make changes on their own to try to impress their client.

3. No consistent method for your client to request changes

When your client doesn't know your feedback process, you leave room for confusion.

For example, you might get all the information you need from your client for one requested change and barely any guidance for another. This is a common problem for projects with multiple stakeholders, because each one has their own ideas about project priorities and style of communicating them.