Conquer Scope Creep Before It Kills Your Project

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Avoiding Scope Creep’s Harmful Effects

In marketing project management, the point in which a project grows beyond its originally anticipated size is termed scope creep. A long-standing enemy of agencies due to its profit-killing consequences, scope creep victimizes clients, too.  Scope creep pushes budgets and extends deadlines. It causes frustration and stress. Sometimes, it can doom even your project; according to the Project Management Institute, 36% of all large projects fail due to scope creep.

While changes to a project often start off with the best intentions, it’s best to avoid scope creep whenever possible. I’m convinced more projects have failed or been severely delayed due to scope creep than any other cause.

What Causes Scope Creep?

Being that I am a believer in the special things an agency and client can accomplish working together as one, I’ve made some observations about project scope creep:

Most scope creep is avoidable.
It’s caused by poor needs analysis, documentation and planning
and is exasperated by disorganized communication, lack of flexibility, and missed deadlines.

Regardless of its causes and which party is responsible for it, scope creep doesn’t have to ruin your next big project. Here are my best tips for combating scope creep, with a little comedic assistance from Dilbert along the way.

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1.  Define Expectations of Success

At the start of a project, every person and company involved should discuss the business case for the project, its goals, and expected outcomes. I called this “setting the Expectations of Success.”  To get the conversation started, I’ll ask “What would it take for this project to be considered a success?” or “What does success look like for you in this situation?”

Discussing what a project looks like when it’s completed is actually the most logical first step; because to get there, then best way is usually to work backwards. Let those early discussions guide decisions throughout the project.  Be transparent, and be clear of what you expect from all parties.  Use quantifiable goals and measurements if possible.  And document these expectations in writing so every project stakeholder is working toward the objectives and goals of the project.

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2.  Get Input Before the Project Begins

We’ve all worked on projects where someone who had no interest in being involved in early decisions suddenly appears with great interest in the 11th hour, proclaiming his expertise on all matters related to the project.  Due to rank, we may need to listen closely to this person’s opinions. And if his input means we need to make changes to the project, well then – more often than not – those involved in the project since its beginning may have to make dozens of new decisions that affect timeline and already-completed parts of the project.

The best way to avoid the effects of a latecomer is to get input from all stakeholders in before the project requirements are drafted and a Scope of Work is created.  If that’s not possible, clearly state the impact that a late change will have on the project: cost and budget overruns, schedule changes, additional project risk, and so forth. In some cases, a seemingly “easy change” announced on a whim will be shelved when put into the perspective of additional costs and time delays.

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3.  Document Everything – in Writing

Most scope creep is caused by a lack of organized communication between the agency and client, and vice versa. Among my favorite oversights are missed technical details (“Did I mention that every form needs to be connected to our new CRM?”), forgetting to warn of upcoming milestones (“Ooops… I need all your new content by this Friday”), and unplanned reviews (“I need to send this to Legal for review…I’ll let you know when they’re done redlining.”)

Missteps like these add cost, time, and stress to any large marketing project – and can often be avoided with thorough, upfront planning. Constant, ongoing communication between client and agency is the key to avoiding these situations. Setting up formal communication practices, like weekly project summaries in writing and pre-scheduled project meetings, can help you avoid misunderstandings and unpleasant surprises. If significant details are discussed by phone, take a few minutes to write up a recap and send an email to everyone involved on the call. These simple practices require little time or effort, but can prevent re-work and unplanned delays.

Sometimes, scope creep is simply unavoidable. If both parties agree to a change in the project scope, your agency should provide you with written documentation defining the change, as well as detailing the additional time and costs to be incurred before the work has started.  No one likes receiving a surprise bill in the mail.

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4. Define Upfront, but Remain Flexible

Web and IT projects, particularly where custom functionality is being developed, can fall victim to seemingly small changes which add significant risks and resources to a project. Define the project’s scope in writing as thoroughly as possible before the project begins, and openly discuss potential unknowns that will be worked out as the project advances.

Those unknowns are where you, as a client, can be taken advantage of. Do your best to define those potential cases upfront and be clear that communication is critical if the project changes. If the project must begin without all known requirements, the agency and client should define early on how scope changes will be estimated, prioritized, and documented.  An open, honest conversation upfront can help avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings once the project is underway.

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5.  Consider the Consequences

Sometimes, deadlines are set in stone and cannot change. In many cases, however, the deadline is an imaginary expectation we’re holding ourselves to.  Since doing something “right” usually takes more time and effort, planning buffer time in a project schedule is wise – particularly for projects which may require research and development, extensive reviews, and user testing. The factors in the project that may be outside of your control, the more buffer time you should plan for in your schedule.

Remember that any changes to the project scope will have an effect on production schedules no matter how many people are working on the project, so adjust accordingly. Certainly there are exceptions to this statement, and a good partner will work hard to minimize the impact of scope changes on a project’s timeline. Sometimes, though, adding time to a project’s schedule is unavoidable.

When this occurs, try to be open-minded to your agency’s concerns. We want you to be happy and we want to get your project completed on time – but we also want to make sure that we are doing our best work for you.  Adding features without adding time to the schedule is a sure recipe for disaster, because it typically leads to “cutting corners” during the development, testing, and review phases of the project.  When that happens, you can be assured that you’ll pay the price dearly in the future.  Rushing through projects due to late scope changes can increase the costs of maintaining and updating your site or web application in the future – and can lead to decreased customer satisfaction, increased customer service volume, and time lost dealing with problems after the product launches.

Conquer Scope Creep Before It Kills Your Project

Scope creep can kill projects, but it’s avoidable by following some simple guidelines. Define and document everything you can before the project begins.  Get input from all stakeholders. Communicate openly and often. Put everything in writing. Remain flexible. Consider all consequences of scope changes and give extra time if it means getting your project done right.

And if you’re tangled in a project that may be on the wrong path, give us a shout. We’re here to help.

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