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Blog post 28 Mar 2022

What is Scope Creep and How to Avoid It? 

What is Scope Creep and How to Avoid It? 

Project management can be defined as a discipline of organising and managing resources so that a project is completed within the defined scope, quality, time, and budget constraints. One of a project managers' primary responsibilities is to manage the defined scope to ensure that expectations are met. Managing scope creep is fundamental to successfully achieve this task.

Scope creep in project management is reflected in wasted money, decreased satisfaction or any cause of an expected project value not to be met. Most projects suffer from scope creep and sometimes, even with managing it, scope creep is unavoidable. There are, however, some ways you can lower the chances of scope creep occurring. To be able to do that, a project manager should know what causes scope creep in the first place.

project scope creep graphics

What is Scope Creep in Project Management? 

According to the PMBOK® Guide, scope creep is described as "adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, budget, and resources, or without customer approval".

Change is unavoidable in projects, which means project scope creep is also unavoidable. That does not mean that scope creep occurs just as a result of changing needs. The most important factor is whether or not adjustments are authorised. If scope expansion is approved, then the change is not considered scope creep.

Why is Project Scope Creep Bad? 

By working on unapproved features of a product, a project team devotes time to the unauthorised changes. In most cases, the work to incorporate these revisions must be completed within the original schedule and budget estimates, leaving less time for the scope's authorised elements. That usually means that approved features are not completed, and the end result is not what was expected. It could also mean that there will be time and expense overruns in completing the scope's authorised parts.

What Causes Scope Creep on Project? 

Scope creep can be caused by numerous reasons that vary from project to project. Here are five common causes of scope creep in project management.

 1. Undefined Project scope 

The scope of a project remains uncertain if it skips extensive requirements analysis. In these situations, there is a considerable risk of misinterpretation and scope expansion.

The ideal way to document the high-level scope, is with a project charter, which is then extended in the scope statement. These high-level perspectives do not help with grasping scope unless there is an established deliverable-based work breakdown structure (WBS).

Without the detail of a thorough WBS, there will be a gap in understanding and that gap will widen if the high-level scope is not clarified further with a rigorous and confirmed requirements analysis.

2. Poorly Managed Scope and Requirements 

As projects grow, so do the requirements for them. Most projects progresses tend to stray away from the project scope. It is easy to add "rogue" requirements in the day-to-day discovery and elaboration of requirements, even without realising it. Without a project manager who is responsible for making decisions, it is difficult for team members to determine if new request are in scope or out of it.

Often, if there is no proper tracking of requirements and project objectives by someone in charge, teams have to rely on their own judgement. Similarly, there is also a situation in which developers might be making a decision without proper authorisation to do so. They might add product features they think are useful or interesting that were not agreed upon before hand. Gold-plating can add to scope creep. That is why change requests need to follow a clear process to prevent haphazard changes in scope.

But on the other hand, "scope kill" can also happen. Project manager and team may prevent changes by strictly enforcing scope, especially if there is a difficult process of changing scope.

3. Inconsistent Process for Collecting Requirements 

Collect requirements is the process of establishing, documenting, and managing stakeholder needs and requirements in order to accomplish project objectives. The main advantage of this process is that it lays the groundwork for establishing the product and project scopes.

The borders around processes that a project influences are often ambiguous. In a project, fuzzy process boundaries result in a fuzzy scope, unnecessary stakeholders, and redundant requirements. This can lead to unintentional scope drift, which can suggest there is too much scope included. It can also contribute to a lack of scope definition.

Conditions or capabilities that must be present in a product, service, or result to satisfy an agreement or other formally imposed specification are referred to as requirements. Requirements are needs and expectations of a sponsor, customer, or stakeholders, and they need to be solicited, analysed, and documented in enough detail to be included in the scope baseline and measured once the project process is underway. Budget, schedule, quality planning and procurement are all based on these requirements and the WBS is then built upon them.

An ever-increasing number of stakeholders in requirements elicitation sessions is generally the outcome of a slipping scope. These additional project stakeholders will wish to provide their requirements and seeing as those requirements are not part of the scope, means they will probably be scope creep.

4. Sponsorship and Stakeholder Involvement 

Not only do lack of sponsorship and stakeholder involvement cause scope creep, but they are two biggest reasons why initiatives fail or are challenged.

Sponsor executives typically may not want to be engaged in every decision. As a result, project teams tend to create decisions themselves. Because some change requests are minor (or appear as such), project teams respond to them rather than going through a formal change management process. These unauthorised scope increases can also be caused by a rigid or time-consuming change control process. Because the centre of activity moves away from the sponsor and toward the team, the less interested the sponsor is, the more probable scope creep will occur.

5. Extended project length 

Longer projects do not cause scope creep directly, but they do increase the chances of scope creep occurring. Projects with large project scope and long project schedule open up more possibilities for extra work with more and more product features and functions to be introduced. This cause of scope creep ties into other already mentioned causes. For example, the longer the project is, the more time the project team has to add unauthorised features or expand on already existing ideas. These changes are considered scope creep if they are not formally submitted and approved.

A change request is any request made, regardless if it is of minor or drastic importance. Requests to increase or reduce the scope of the project, requests to amend policies, methods, plans, or processes, requests to modify expenditures, and requests to update or modify timelines are all examples of typical change requests.

However, the most important thing for change requests is that they are made formally and that changes are not implemented until the altercation process has been formally approved by an authorized person or body.

5 Steps to avoid scope creep 

5 steps to avoid project scope creep

Managing scope creep is difficult. Even when the original scope is very well planned, during the project's execution there can be a lot of change request. Everyone involved - team members, clients or key stakeholders can be responsible for project straying away from the originally planned process. But, previously named causes do, in fact, have solutions that project managers can apply when trying to manage scope and avoid scope creep.

1. Document the Project Requirements 

Clear, well-managed scope is a key element to successful projects. Having all necessary documentation like detailed project scope (defining both features that are in and out of scope), as well as project charter and a WBS that decomposes deliverables into work packages.

During the creation of these documents everyone should contribute. Sponsors can contribute to clear scope by developing their own charters and business analysts can contribute to clear scope with effective requirements elicitation and by analysing and documenting clear, complete, and concise requirements.

2. Set up Change Control Processes 

A change management process should be incorporated in the scope management plan. By using appropriate scope management methods, a project manager can help keep scope under control. When it comes to making scope decisions, every project should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities for everyone that is involved in a project.

So, Scope Management is essentially ensuring that all desired additional features and functions are handled in a satisfactory manner by all stakeholders.

3. Change Control Process

Establish and follow scope modelling, analysis, prioritising, traceability, and change management requirements processes. Create scope models early in a project to encourage discussion and agreement on the scope. For this, you can use tools that will visually clarify scope. They can also be utilised to build upon when the final output of the project is refined.

To assure a complete and consistent set of requirements, use the concept of progressive elaboration to collect and analyse needs in "layers." There are three iterations of how project managers can do this: a scoping layer, an enlarged layer, and a detailed layer.

4. Verify the Project Scope with the Stakeholders 

The project sponsor is in the best position to adequately define the project's vision, benefits, and limitations. Use sponsor-friendly project status reporting that focuses on progress toward deliverables.

To manage roles and responsibilities on projects, use a RACI (Responsible Accountable Consulted Informed) matrix. RACI tool is used to clarify decision-making and confirm participation by SMEs. Make sure to include a risk for a lack of participation by project stakeholders, and plan for contingencies in case this risk occurs.

5. Decompose Complex Projects

Educate sponsors to divide projects into shorter subprojects and to focus on tight deliverables. As subprojects and phases of longer projects finish, formally close them out, conduct "lessons learned" sessions, and celebrate. This helps maintain momentum and reinforces the results and benefits achieved. That in turn keeps sponsors and other project stakeholders engaged.

There are many more scope creep solutions covered in our PMP Passport Course. The course is structured to help project managers:

  • keep project team on track,
  • manage communication with stakeholders and,
  • plan and manage scope so that they can avoid scope creep and stay within a budget and deadline.