Scope creep—the tendency of a project to grow beyond its original parameters—can happen to the best of us, often despite the best intentions of all involved.

Scope creep can rear its head in virtually any aspect of our home or work lives:

  • You stop off at the grocery store for “only” a couple of items and come out with a shopping cart heaped to overflow and a bank account a couple of hundred dollars lighter.
  • The weekend honey-do list grows from “just” one hour of errands you should have no problem finishing by noon on Saturday, to the point where you’re starting to worry that being able to watch Sunday afternoon’s ballgame is in jeopardy.
  • The boss asks you late in the afternoon if you have time to finish up a few “small” things before quitting time, and now it’s 6:30 pm and you’ve still got a handful of those small things to get done before you can call it a day.
  • That “quick and easy” web design project for a website of just a couple of pages turns into anything but, with additional pages, verbiage, and functions beyond what you expected or allotted time, people, or budget for.

In business, scope creep can be a double-edged sword. For service providers, if you’re getting paid by the unit or the hour, scope creep isn’t necessarily bad. After all, in theory the more work, the more you get paid (unless of course, you’ve only allotted a specific amount of time to a project). For clients, scope creep can lead to budget overruns, delays, and getting something you don’t want or don’t need.

What Causes Scope Creep

Perhaps the number once culprit leading to scope creep is not knowing what you want or need in relation to a particular vision for your company or a project (or in the case of our wayward grocery shopper, not having a list and sticking to it!).

  • Do you understand what you need, why you need it, and how you will measure “success”?
  • What are your goals and objectives? The Metrics?
  • Do you know who you’re marketing to, where they go for information, and how they make their purchase decisions?
  • Do you know what kind of commitment you are willing to make in terms of people, resources, and time to see a project through?

Without a clear vision from the outset, you can’t possibly know what you need . . . nor can you communicate those needs to an internal resource (manager) or external vendor/agency responsible for managing and delivering the project on-time, on-budget, and within specs.

You should also empower your project manager with the power to say “yes” or “no” to requests for additional resources, people, or time. A well-timed “no” is sometimes all that’s needed to prevent a project from getting out of control.

Sometimes Scope Creep is OK

Not all scope creep is bad. Sometimes things get out of hand simply from a lack of understanding about the appropriate scope of a project from the outset. Perhaps you were thinking “small” when you should have been thinking “big.” Perhaps you learned more about what you needed to do as you got further into a project, resulting in a necessary adjustment to the project parameters.

That’s OK. What’s not OK is failing to recognize that projects can change over time (especially long duration projects).

Good project managers will have processes in place to address the needs for more time, more resources, and additional budget as may be required. Such processes can protect an organization or a vendor/service provider from taking too great of a hit due to unforeseen developments and circumstances along the way.

Scope Creep – Pentagon Style

No Surprises

When it comes to managing a project, big or small, my motto is “no surprises.” The key to no surprises is maintaining open lines of communication with all parties for the duration—the client, the project manager, and any additional vendors and suppliers.

When communication is effective; when there’s a clear vision from the outset; when there’s a project manager in charge; and when there’s a clear process for handing changing parameters, there are no excuses for scope creep. Everyone’s on the same page, and everyone is rowing in the same direction.

What can you do at your organization to make your projects go more smoothly? How can you step up to ensure scope creep doesn’t derail achieving your goals and objectives?

Paul June is King Monkey of BARREL O’MONKEYZ, a San Diego-based strategic marketing agency specializing in Sports and Active Lifestyle markets. We serve as a seasoned, outsourced marketing team for companies looking to ramp up sales and launch new products. Our barrel is full of talent and creative arms ready to prove we don’t just monkey around!