As every manager knows, running a project is rarely seamless. A ton of things can go wrong, from lost focus to surprise client requests that inflate the budget. Scope creep is one of the biggest problems affecting project management – and therefore one project managers need to be most wary of. While it’s great to be able to work with a variety of different opinions, priorities and ideas, they can create new work and destabilize projects when raised too late. So how can you avoid your projects taking an unexpected turn, and only deliver what you agreed at the start?
What is scope creep?
First things first: definitions. Scope creep relates to the tendency for projects to grow beyond their original limitations. The use of the word ‘creep’ to describe this problem is apt, because it usually happens very insidiously; the problems slowly slink into the project, hindering multiples processes and plaguing a variety of projects across the spectrum – small or large, simple or intricate. Like a contagious disease, once scope creep sets in, it can be hard to recover from it.
Scope creep happens naturally, and it generally occurs when the shape and boundaries of a project aren’t clearly defined. It can happen as easily as a client requesting more services while not increasing the budget. In addition, without clear communication, clients might not even know what they’re looking for. The frustratingly vague, “I’ll know what I want once I see it,” phrase is not an uncommon saying for project managers to hear (sadly!) .
You must always set clearly outlined and controlled objectives from the very beginning – otherwise, how can you ensure the timeline and budget isn’t blown, let alone know whether you’re staying on track? Luckily, there are ways to stop scope creep in its tracks – before the damage sets in.
How to stop scope creep
1. Develop and maintain strong lines of communication
Effective, regular communication is one of the easiest ways to prevent scope creep. From the very start of the project, you need to ensure your client is aware and onboard with your plans, and that all the parameters of the project are agreed on. Never start work before a robust brief has been finalized by your client. Check every detail, and then check them again – you can never be too careful! This vigilance means that as soon as any divergence from the original plan appears, you can address it immediately.
Make sure this communication extends to your own team members, too, and not just clients. Sharing information and updates promptly and accurately is essential for stopping scope creep. Is every team member aware of their individual responsibilities? Is everyone on the same page? Have different roles been clearly defined?
Think carefully about what communication channels you’ll use, and ensure all employees know how to raise concerns about scope creep or any other issue relating to the project. Just make sure this internal communication doesn’t become a burden – a simple communications framework can keep contact useful, focused and productive.
2. Create a firm timeline and track it
Scheduling a firm project timeline – and then sticking to it – is another effective way to prevent scope creep. You simply can’t be too attentive about scheduling. Study it, track it, map it; that way, by recording every stage of the project and laying everything out in detail, it’s super easy to determine when scope creep starts to sneak in. Never minimize a project’s difficulty and intricacy, which should be suitably balanced against the timeline and available resources.
All deliverables should be broken down into individual tasks with well-defined timelines, and big and small milestones should be highlighted. Each time you reach a milestone, have the client sign it off; not only do these dates help keep you on track, but they also reduce the chance of an unforeseen client demand setting you back. This way you can better understand the status of your project and whether you’re on track, too.
3. Use smart project management tools
To make sure you’re sticking to priorities, invest in an intelligent project tracking tool. Any project manager knows how hard it can be to keep track of budget, timeframe, and resources, so make things easier for yourself by using tools that automatically track that data and reveal insights to help future projects, too.
Tools like Timely’s real-time project dashboards can help you:
Keep projects within budget. Live performance dashboards and personal notifications allow you to proactively manage multiple projects from one place and ensure you’re not frittering the budget away uneccessarily.
Understand how project time is spent. Because you can see a complete break-down of tasks and individual activity for each project, you can see exactly where your time and budget is going – immediately spotting scope creep.
Improve cost and time estimations. You can minimize scope creep before you even begin by ensuring your project estimates are accurate and reliable. This is much easier when you have a clear overview of the tasks and phase durations for other projects.