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Marketing Project Management

A Complete Guide to Understanding Scope Creep in Project Management

January 16, 2018

In project management, scope creep — the unwarranted bloating of a project’s scope — is all too common. Here’s everything you need to know about it, how to manage it, and the resources that can help you prevent it.

‍Image: Dilbert

Picture this.

You’ve signed up for a project and are excited to be working on it. But every once in a while, right in the middle of all the action, the scope of work seems to change. New tasks are randomly added, some are made redundant and others are changed beyond recognition before you’ve even had a chance to ask why and figure out amends. And because a lot of it happens out of the blue, your time is now expended incorporating the changes and very little on moving the project forward. The deadlines are pushed, costs overrun, and expectations bloated beyond recognition. The air is rife with disappointment and misunderstanding causing more instances of rework than work. The project is now a heavily mutated mush of complicated things, its scope unclear but clearly swelling, even as you contemplate fixes and corrective measures.

This is scope creep — the tendency for project scope to unceremoniously change, all too often and anytime from the moment the project commences.

Unlike scope change, which by definition, is the change in the scope of a project carried out in a planned and controlled way, scope creep occurs rather erratically. It starts typically as requests for modifications, and without due diligence and proper scope overhaul, one deliverable quickly turns into ten, and outcomes look nothing like the one you’d planned for. Elevated, extreme changes in project scope result in scope leap, followed by scope grope — a situation wherein the project team, as well as the project sponsor, struggle to even define the scope of the project because of all the ‘detours and dead-ends’ now plotted into the original project.


Scope creep happens for reasons for both rational and irrational.

Sometimes the project owner — the client or the management in your organization — makes an unseasoned request for change in project nitty-gritty because the market has changed or, say, a competitor has decided to come out with some cool new feature that they must have too. As a result, there is a change in the number of the tasks and the kinds of tasks, resulting in the bloating of the project scope.

More often, though, scope creep occurs because the project itself is poorly outlined and its stakeholders are passive participants in the process of solution development. When deliverables are described using vague terms and not hard numbers, it’s easy for the project team to get pulled into believing that a request for change is actually in aid of the [vague] goal established.

Out-of-scope requests, when within reason, can be easily incorporated following a change order. But sometimes, well-meaning project managers and team leads, out of kindness or for the sake of their client’s happiness, take up requests for extra work as a goodwill gesture. And the more often they end up doing this, their productivity, as well as the project’s profitability, take a hit and a sloth-like exuberance takes over the whole process.

Accepting requests for adding/altering features and/or functionality as outlined in the project’s scope without proper approval and without factoring in the effect of doing so on timelines, costs, and resources leads to scope creep.


In addition to eating into your budgets and your team’s productive hours, here’s everything you can expect in case scope creep occurs during the course of a project:

  • The project team squirms for additional time and resources, ostentatiously stretching the planned budgets and timelines.
  • Costs spill over and extra spending needs to be justified to the project sponsors or the clients and the team heads.
  • Quality is affected since your resources are spread too thin.
  • Team moral hangs low and stress levels run high.
Finally, in due course, completing the project becomes a long drawn exercise in just ‘getting things done’ instead of ‘getting things done well.’


In the face of it, a project manager must shift gears and figure out remedial measures, and as quickly as possible, to avoid the scope from ‘creeping’ further and halting the pace of the project’s progress.

And managing scope creep, at any stage, typically involves:

  • Mapping the progress and establishing the current status of a project.
  • Defining the cause and effect of the change(s) requested to the charter already established.
  • Determining if the overall scope of the project will be impacted by the new request(s).
  • Setting up corrective measures and new action-plans to advance the change(s), if found feasible.
  • Working out a change order after negotiating updated timelines and pricing in keeping with the scope change.
  • Documenting and communicating the scope change to all the stakeholders of the project.
Additionally, it is essential for the project manager to be transparent about the scope change — no matter how big or small — with his team. This helps prevent dissonance as well as a lot of the negative sentiments that arise due to unplanned changes. Needless to say, Communication is key!


Admittedly, scope creep is a chronic condition.

When it happens, there is very little a project manager can do apart from managing the request for change(s) as efficiently as possible to ensure project completion, irrespective of the nature of the outcome.

However, it helps to have preventive mandates and clear process protocols in place, even before you start working on a project, to help reduce the intensity of impact of involuntary requests for scope change, whenever they may arise.

1. Matching client view to the project scope

Typically, every project starts with a high-level idea of what it is about and all that it will help accomplish. Project sponsors (a client or the management) tend to focus on (and also articulate) the business case for a project and rarely ever bother with defining the scope and controls; a job typically left to the project manager who draws on the sponsor’s cues to draft the project charter and the scope statement.

It is at this stage that it helps to establish the expectations as clearly and objectively as possible between the sponsor/the client and the conductor of the project. The better they understand each other, the more refine and actionable the charter.

Here, employing the services of a business analyst for scope modeling is recommended. Also, tools like business process modeling and data flow diagrams can help break down the project hierarchically and capture the scope of it explicitly.

More on project goal setting:

2. Insisting on a detailed charter

You need more than just broad-brush descriptions of goals and responsibilities for a project charter to be reliable.

For instance, just saying you need to ‘grow your customer base’ is an empty, poorly-scoped objective of a marketing campaign. What qualifies as growth? And how much is a good enough number? Questions like these need to be discussed and their answers penned down in hard terms in a charter upon discussion with the project stakeholders.

A thoughtful charter specifies the ends, and measurably so. It never talks about the ‘hows’ or the means to achieving said goals. The idea is to enable the team members to draw on their knowledge, skills, and experience to devise strategies and lead the way forward.

More on writing project charters:

3. Creating a work breakdown structure

The high-level views mentioned in a project charter are only helpful in visualizing the end. But to enable a project team to start delivering on the scripted goals, it helps to decompose and break down the broad scope into smaller deliverables.

A work breakdown structure is a hierarchical decomposition of the overall project’s objectives into smaller, deliverable-oriented tasks.

The purpose of a WBS is to skim mammoth-sized objectives into manageable collections of measurable ‘task packages’. This helps in estimating cost, time, and the requirement for resources accurately in addition to building controls at every step of the way of a project.

To create a WBS, a project manager must, first and foremost, think about what all needs to be done to achieve the said goals, including action-items, resources, skills, and time.

Here, it becomes crucial for the project manager to abide by the ‘100% principle’ when thinking about drafting the WBS — the sum of the work represented by each set of activities must add up to 100% of the work necessary to achieve the project goals successfully. Again, here, it is essential to focus on the outcomes and not the means. If the WBS factors in action-oriented details, you run the risk of either enlisting too many or too few activities. This bit is, therefore, best left to the teams, more so because it helps the members therein feel empowered and trusted enough to do a good job.

More on work breakdown structure:

4. Making provisions for change

All projects come with their own set of potential risks and volatile variables like time and money. And a change in the project’s scope is almost always because of one or both of these.

Understanding variables that are important to the stakeholders as well as the risks they are trying to mitigate can go a long way in planning for accommodating requests for changes to the project’s scope. Use the knowledge of mission-critical variables and risks to feed in sufficient amount of buffer between key activities to better manage the impact of any kind of uncertainty.

More on change management plan:

5. Choose agile project development techniques

Agile project development techniques, such as SCRUM, Kanban, RAD, and LEAN, are designed to accommodate change — any change — at any given point in the course of the project.

Suitable for constantly evolving projects, in agile, you focus on short development cycles, also called as ‘sprints,’ to improve and streamline the development process in order to rapidly identify and fix issues and defects. Agile, therefore, allows you to deliver a quality product in a short amount of time through quick, iterative processes or ‘sprints.’

Agile project development tools allow a project manager to hit key milestones and, along with the team members, determine accurate project status fast, even when it’s a moving target that they are chasing. Due to greater visibility into the outcomes and pitfalls, supported by an unrelenting cycle of feedback, project managers using agile techniques remain confident in the face of sudden change in scope.

With the advancements in technology, following agile is only a matter of choosing the right project management software these days. Brightpod, too, has been built to aid agile project management and comes equipped with capabilities that help make clear the milestones, the dependencies, and the overall project progress in a way that accommodates requests for scope change in an easy and hassle-free way.

More on agile management:

Also, the HBR Guide to Project Management is a great place to start if you need help defining clear project goals and methods to achieving them. There’s also The Change Book: Fifty Models to Explain How Things Happen — a personal favorite — particularly effective in helping make sense of change — big or small — and recommends simple models to effectively navigating them.

Scope creep, while often unavoidable, is easily controllable with the right set of tools and a right attitude too.

In this day and age, when things change faster than you can even say the word, it makes every sense to accommodate the possibility of change when undertaking a project, irrespective of its scale. However, in the interest of preserving the expectations of the sponsors as well as those of the project’s team, it is advisable to keep communication transparent, well-documented, and appropriately modeled to accommodate the future possibility of small scope change, incremental scope creep and drastic scope leap, too.

Managing marketing projects shouldn’t be chaotic — Try Brightpod for free and start focusing on what matters.

Meeta Sharma

Meeta Sharma is a content marketing specialist and regularly writes about her domain and start-up life.

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