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December 14, 2022

Understanding and managing scope creep

Project Management Scope
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Every project starts with hopes, plans, and expectations. But sometimes, during the initiative, new requirements begin to pile up. As a result, the scope becomes too large to deliver within the original parameters. Project management has a name for this phenomenon: scope creep.

What is it? What causes it? How to keep it to a minimum? This article will answer these questions, helping you understand and fight scope creep in your projects.

What is Scope Creep?

The PMBOK® Guide defines scope creep as “adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval.”

From a practical standpoint, it’s not an air-tight definition, though. Often, it’s the customer or stakeholder who requests new functionalities. As such, it’s not a question of authorization. The problem is the growth of scope itself, no matter who causes it.

Simply put, Scope creep is the uncontrolled addition of requirements or features while the project is in progress. It is a process that grows like a tumor, making more and more damage each time it expands. Granted, it’s much less immediate than the death march. But left untreated, it can be fatal to your project’s success.

What causes Scope Creep?

Multiple factors can contribute to the unwanted growth of the project scope. Let’s take a look at some of the most common culprits.

An image showing five main causes of scope creep

Lack of precise scope definition

Managers and stakeholders often think about projects in their own ways. For instance, stakeholders focus on the deliverables and business needs. The specific work it takes to get there is not on their radar. After all, planning the necessary tasks is the project manager’s job.

Therefore, when the boundaries of scope aren’t clear, stakeholders might add ideas and present needs throughout the project’s life cycle. They fit the general idea behind the project, so why would these additions cause any issues? When such expansions become routine, the scope gets out of hand fast.

Uncontrolled attempts to provide value

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That’s exactly the mindset that applies in this cause of the scope creep in project management. Project teams often see an opportunity to add extra value to the project. Usually, it refers to features that the stakeholders did not ask for. Such instances are called gold plating. It’s a noble idea, but there is a caveat.

Time, money, and the number of people in the organization are finite. When project teams go off script and focus on unapproved features, they reduce their capabilities for the planned work. They might still deliver both, but it’s less likely to happen.

Unclear requirements

Stakeholders tend to have specific results or benefits in mind. But thinking and conveying those thoughts are two separate things. Projects are collaborative and require understanding on all sides of the coin.

Just as stakeholders must be aware of the limitations, the project teams must understand the objectives and requirements. Otherwise, the team might spend time on deliverables that do not align with stakeholder needs. Then, in an effort to rectify the situation, the scope grows.

Lack of change control processes

Change is natural in project management, especially in Agile teams. However, modifications in requirements and scope cannot happen freely. Stakeholders and Product Owners must supervise them. Firstly, to ensure that these changes contribute to business objectives. Secondly, to verify their probability of success based on the timeline, budget, and availability of team members.

When there is no systematic approach to managing changes during the project, the scope becomes much harder to control.

Delayed stakeholder participation

Stakeholders hold great power, whether it’s a Classic, Agile, or Hybrid project. They make requirements and reap the benefits of the results. Thus, they ought to be involved in the project from its conception.

There have been many instances where stakeholders were included in the project at its late stage. More often than not, they demanded significant changes or enhancements to the scope to meet their needs. When that happens, it’s usually challenging to accommodate large-scale modifications within a fixed time frame and budget.

Consequences of scope creep

Now you know what scope creep is and how it sneaks into projects. It’s time to delve into the ramifications it can cause. Spoiler alert: none of them are pleasant.

A table showing four main ramifications of scope creep.

Project delay

As the scope gets more bloated, it becomes increasingly harder to complete all the items before the deadline. It’s quite straightforward. More work is needed, and the timeline has not accounted for it initially. Therefore, teams will need more time to fulfill every aspect of the scope. That’s a surefire recipe for delays.

Cost overrun

Most new functionalities require additional investment. It could entail more people, new tools, or extra materials, to name a few. As you know, none of that is free. In essence, additions to the scope translate into an exceeded budget. Naturally, the extent of the additional spending is context-specific. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the project and the more invasive the scope creep, the larger the overrun.

Stakeholder dissatisfaction

One can think of a project as a contract. The stakeholders present their requirements and provide the funds while the project teams execute the deliverables. Once scope creep makes a mess of the plans and the ability to materialize them, stakeholders might become discontented. It can create a sense of mistrust in the project team’s capabilities in future initiatives.

Project failure

This is usually the worst-case scenario resulting from the first two consequences combined. When it takes too long to finish a project, and it’s too expensive to boot, stakeholders might decide to cancel it.

Famous Examples of Scope Creep in project management

An image showing construction workers assembling a conveyor belt in an airport, with a lot of baggage piling up behind them.

Every experienced project manager has dealt with this problem at least once in their career. Delays and exceeding the budget are par for the course in this situation. But some projects suffer from scope creep so severely that they become infamous.

The Denver Airport Baggage System Project

The automated baggage system was going to be the star feature of Denver’s new airport. Instead, it turned into a nightmare. All in all, the initiative was 16 months late and over 500 million dollars over budget. Luggage handling is a critical part of an airport, so the building was closed for business for over a year. As a result, not only did it cost a lot more than expected, it stopped the entire airport from generating revenue for months.

What went wrong, then? We can discern several reasons why scope creep has caught up with the airport’s grand ambitions:

  • The voices of subject matter experts (and key stakeholders) were ignored.
  • The time allocated to the project was insufficient.
  • Some stakeholders joined the discussions at later stages of the project.
  • Massive changes were made during the project, instead of the planning phase.

Being half a billion dollars over budget sounds like a lot, but the managers of the next project would love that sort of cost overrun.

The Central Artery/Tunnel Project, aka “The Big Dig”

The project entailed rerouting a highway from downtown Boston using a series of tunnels in the outskirts. This ambitious endeavor was supposed to last until 1998 and cost about 2,8 billion dollars.

The final figures told a different story. Construction ended in 2007, and the total cost exceeded 8 billion dollars. The initiative involved lawsuits, arrests, and structure collapses, to name a few. All the delays, expenses, and turmoil awarded the Big Dig the title of the most expensive highway initiative in US history.

So what caused such massive discrepancies between projections and reality?

  • Lack of consensus in terms of requirements among interested parties.
  • Poor communication between multiple siloed teams and stakeholders.
  • Lack of leadership impacted decision-making.

Naturally, these are some of the most extreme examples of scope creep. Fortunately, problems on such a massive scale don’t happen often.

Is scope creep entirely preventable?

That’s akin to asking if change is preventable. Small teams working on short-term and low-cost projects might deliver the scope with no extra weight attached to it. But when large, multi-year initiatives come into play, it’s almost impossible to maintain the original scope.

Technological progress, economic factors, new legislation, and market trends – all these factors can force stakeholders to adjust their approach midway through the project. Therefore, it’s not about preventing scope creep completely. The right approach is to minimize its scale and impact.

How to prevent Scope creep from destroying your projects?

Just because scope creep is inevitable, it doesn’t mean it’s uncontrollable. There are some tips you can follow to ensure it doesn’t wreak havoc on your initiatives. Keep in mind, the tips depend on the approach you use to manage projects.

Classic

Show stakeholders the consequences of changes

The project sponsors may not realize that their ask comes at a price. It comes in the form of the Triple Constraint – time, scope, and cost.

The triple constraint of project management: time, cost, and scope.

If you want the project to accommodate the new inputs, lay out their impact on the project. On top of that, juxtapose them with the available budget and the timeline.

Here’s an example: “If we were to implement Deliverable X, it would delay the project by a month and require an additional $500,000 in the budget. Alternatively, we can remove some of the current deliverables to make room for X. Is that a trade-off you are willing to accept?”

That way, the stakeholders see the impact of their requests. Conversely, project managers keep the scope, time, and expenses under control.

Document and communicate the changes

When updates to the scope do occur, everyone involved must be aware of them. In Waterfall initiatives, each change is documented so the stakeholders know what they pay for. But project teams aren’t privy to such contracts. As a result, if there is no centralized method of communicating changes, some teams might be left in the dark. Keeping everyone informed of the latest developments will ensure no one focuses on the work they shouldn’t be doing.

In Agile, there is no such requirement, but it’s a good practice to create project documentation and update it frequently. The benefits are the same as in Waterfall projects. More clarity equals focusing on the right work.

Include the experts in the planning phase

Stakeholders drive the direction of the projects. Managers handle the planning and verification of the plans. Project teams focus on the execution in their respective areas. But some cases require consultants to make sure the project is actually doable.

With lots of money and effort at stake, the inclusion of subject matter experts before the work starts can save the business from huge losses. Furthermore, these authorities can provide invaluable insights into the execution of the project. Ones that the project teams might not be aware of. So, whether someone says: “This won’t work, here’s why,” or “If you want to succeed, make sure to do X, Y, and Z,” it provides immense value to the project.

Apply lessons learned from previous projects

If a team has done a similar project before, they have experienced what worked and what didn’t. It’s wise to implement the insights into subsequent initiatives. It could eliminate any bottlenecks that occurred in previous endeavors. Naturally, to make that happen, project teams should document and keep track of the lessons learned after each project.

Encourage stakeholders to discuss the needs with end users

When the voices of the end users are heard, a few things happen. Firstly, the stakeholders have a better understanding of the end user’s needs, and they can create requirements accordingly. Secondly, the product delivers additional value. And thirdly, it reduces the number of improvements down the line. After all, when the product works as intended, there is no need to “fix it.” That saves money and lets product teams focus on development instead of fixing.

Agile

The adaptive approach to project management embraces changes. However, there are situations where they can cause more harm than good. One of them is when stakeholders or Product Owners add requirements during Sprints. There are a few ways to solve this problem.

Shorten the Sprints

Two-week Sprints are a gold standard for most software development teams working in Scrum. It provides enough time to create valuable and complete functionalities. However, if stakeholders regularly disrupt the Sprints with new high-priority requirements, these timeboxes may not allow teams to keep up with the pace of stakeholder involvement. Switching to one-week increments might be the solution.

Discard the Sprints altogether

If the tip mentioned above doesn’t result in improvement, it might be time to let go of the Sprints in total. There are Agile frameworks that don’t rely on fixed time increments, with Kanban being the most popular one.

Educate the stakeholders

Alternatively, the team can speak to the stakeholders and the PO and establish adding new requests between Sprints. Not all stakeholders understand how Scrum events work and why frequent interruptions are detrimental to the success of Scrum teams.

Keep scope creep in check with BigPicture

The tips mentioned above certainly help manage scope creep. However, PPM software also has a lot to offer in that regard. BigPicture allows managers to react to changes before the project spirals out of control. More importantly, our tool supports Classic, Agile, and Hybrid initiatives. BigPicture offers different solutions, depending on the project management approach of your choice.

Classic

It starts with scope maintenance. That’s where the Work Breakdown Structure shines. But the ability to create a detailed and interactive list of tasks is just the tip of the iceberg.

Any time you discuss potential additions with stakeholders, it’s best to show their impact on the project. In BigPicture, you can use baselines and what-if scenarios in the Gantt module to do so.

Baselines serve as reference points for tasks and phases. When a new task is added to the scope, you can clearly see how it affects other parts of the initiative. Take a look at the example below.

A screenshot of BigPicture's Gantt module showing the discrepancy between baseline and the current timeline of a task.
The taskbar is moved away from the baseline (the grey line). That means the task is delayed compared to its original estimate.


The gray lines represent the baseline. The task bars shifted to the right visualize the delay compared to the original project plan.

As for the scenarios, it’s a great tool for testing how different durations of tasks affect the end of the project. Once you find a variation you would like to apply to your project plan, just click “Merge,” and the scenario will replace the live view.

Agile

Baselines also help control scope creep in Sprint planning. When creating a list of stories to complete in a given iteration, mark them with a baseline. Any time anyone adds a new story while the Sprint is in progress, it will stand out from the rest of the items.

A screenshot from BigPicture's Board module
Compare the highlighted blue and grey task bars. The newly added task doesn’t have a baseline. That means it was added after the scope has been defined.

Hybrid

Thanks to BigPicture, there is an easy way to see the effects of scope creep in Hybrid projects. Firstly, mark the end of the project as a milestone. Secondly, make sure your period mode is set to auto-bottom up. Any time a new task enters the scope in the Gantt module, it pushes the release date further.

It provides you with an opportunity to raise the stakeholders’ awareness. They will see how much the timeline expands if their new ideas are to be implemented.

Scope creep can pose a serious threat to any project. But it becomes much more manageable if you understand why it happens, employ preventative measures, and use the right project management software.