Not all changes to project scope are created equal. In an Agile environment where there are many uncertainties about what the user really wants, scope changes are expected, even welcomed. However, there are still many projects today (even in software) where the scope is more well defined and planned for up front. One of a project manager’s largest responsibilities in situations like this is avoiding the dreaded scope creep.
Scope creep refers to the gradual expansion of a project’s goals, deliverables, and features beyond its original vision and plan. While it may seem harmless at first, it can lead to negative consequences for a project, like budget and schedule overruns. That is why it is important for a project manager to keep an eye out for scope creep and use the following strategies to manage or avoid it:
Clearly define the project scope
How can you manage scope if you don’t know what it is? This includes specific deliverables, timelines, and objectives. When this step is done right, a project manager can easily identify and push back against scope creep by having a clear understanding of what is and isn't included in the project.
Example: At the beginning of a project, ideally during contract negotiations if working with a client, I ensure that the project scope is well-defined and documented by clearly stating the project objectives and the specific goals that the project is intended to achieve. These objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
Engage with your stakeholders
Engaging relevant stakeholders early on, especially during the initiation phase, helps to ensure that all the requirements for the project are collected and defined. Keeping the key stakeholders informed throughout the project lifecycle through regular communication (as per the communications plan) and gathering feedback from stakeholders can help prevent unexpected changes in project requirements (we talked about influencing those stakeholders in a previous post). Don’t forget to look outside of your project team for influential stakeholders!
Example: A few years ago, I was a project manager for a large project in Kenya that involved procurement of equipment from a foreign country. During the initiation phase, I omitted to include a crucial stakeholder into a project. I did not realize this mistake until the equipment had been shipped and was waiting to be cleared at the port of entry where we were faced with various issues from the government officials. I therefore had to take a step back and identify the stakeholder that had influence over the clearance of the goods. This was the head of customs. Albeit late, I introduced him to the project team and informed him of the project goals and objectives and he finally agreed to clear the equipment and have them shipped to the station. This served as a key lesson on taking time to identify and involve all the relevant stakeholders during the initiation phase of the project.
Establish a change control process
Implementing a formal change control process that requires any proposed changes to go through a structured review and approval process can help in making sure that all scope changes are carefully evaluated for their impact on the project's timeline, budget, and resources. This process can sometimes take a few days to implement but it greatly controls scope creep.
Example: I have come across situations whereby a client suddenly requests a huge change in the project scope. In such a situation, I usually communicate to them clearly what the impact of the change will have on the project timeline and resources. If after carefully explaining the impact of the change they are persistent about going forward with it, we review the request through our previously agreed upon formal change request process (as above, this is ideally done as part of the contract). This process protects both the project team and the client – scope creep oftentimes impacts the quality of deliverables if team members are pushed to do more with less time.
Monitor and track project progress
It is essential for a project manager to have frequent project progress reviews with the team to track project progress against the project plan to identify any deviations from the original scope. This immensely helps project managers catch potential scope creep early and take corrective action.
Example: I find it helpful to schedule a once-a-month review meeting with my team and stakeholders to take stock of the project progress. We identify the bottlenecks no matter how small they might seem and find solutions on how to move forward. This practice is pivotal in project progress and catching problems/issues when they are small and easier to resolve.
Keeping detailed documentation of all project requirements, decisions, and changes and having them easily accessible to the project team provides a clear record of what was agreed upon and can be used to push back against scope creep if necessary.
Example: Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace can be used to store all project documents for my teams’ easy access. Be careful when using chat tools like Slack – while they can greatly increase communication between team members, conversations (and especially decisions) can easily get lost. Make sure the team is clear on the “source of truth” for project documentation.
Clearly communicate the project scope (plus what is NOT in scope) to all stakeholders and manage their expectations accordingly. It's important to be transparent about what the project will and will not deliver.
Example: There have been instances whereby I have had to pushback against requests for scope changes that are not in alignment with the original project scope. This requires both strong communication and negotiation skills, but it is essential for maintaining project integrity. By employing these strategies, project managers can effectively mitigate the risk of scope creep and keep their projects on track.
Manage assumptions and risks
Identifying any assumptions that the project might be based on, as well as potential risks that could impact the project’s scope will help in managing expectations and preparing for potential challenges. Make sure this isn’t a one-time activity – continue to verify assumptions and track risks throughout the project lifecycle. They are likely to change significantly over time.
Example: I always make sure that my team members and I discuss any potential risks that might crop up during the project. We qualify them, quantify them, and document a risk mitigation plan where necessary. This helps ensure that risks that may affect the project scope are managed properly.
Project managers and other team members, employ these strategies and you can help to mitigate the risk of scope creep, keep your team morale high, and increase your value-add to the organization!
About the Author
Christabel Misiko, PMP
Christabel has a combined eleven years experience in both construction and software project management. She has a proven track record of successfully managing complex projects, and brings leadership and innovation to the table. Her vision, drive and intellectual depth help to secure project results under pressure.