Scope creep is the uncontrolled and often unmanageable growth of a project’s requirements, or ‘scope’, once it's underway. Scope creep often forces project managers to reallocate resources and rewrite schedules, leading to missed deadlines and swollen budgets.
There are some ways to mitigate scope creep, including creating detailed plans and using project management software to keep yourself on the right track.
This guide will take you through exactly what scope creep is, how you can avoid it, and how you can recover from it – all good things to know considering that scope creep is an inevitable part of many projects. In this guide, you'll find:
- What Is Scope Creep, and How Does It Happen?
- Examples of Scope Creep
- How to Avoid Scope Creep
- How Does Project Management Software Avoid Scope Creep?
- How to Recover From Scope Creep
What Is Scope Creep, and How Does It Happen?
To understand what ‘scope creep’ means, we’ve first got to look at the term ‘scope’. The ‘scope’ of a project essentially refers to the entirety of that project's requirements – it’s the full collection of relevant tasks that need to be completed for a project to be considered finished.
For example, if you were completing a project on the grizzly bear population in North America over the past 300 years, researching the species' recent population recovery in Yellowstone National Park would be well within the project’s scope. Researching Vietnam’s rail transportation system, on the other hand, would not be within the scope of this project.
Scope creep, then, refers to the uncontrolled, unmanageable and often inevitable widening of a project’s scope.
Scope creep often happens gradually and incrementally (hence the word ‘creep’). Once a project is underway, its scope will change depending on how many changes or modifications are made.
The most obvious reason as to why scope creep occurs is (unsurprisingly) an ambiguous project scope – in other words, a lack of clearly defined project goals. If this is the case, the opportunity for it to creep is almost endless. Other reasons why scope creep occurs include:
- Poor planning – if deadlines, resources, and budgets aren’t set out properly before a project, and a requirements analysis isn’t performed, then the scope of the project will be narrower than it should be, and scope creep may occur as a byproduct of you wanting to achieve the project’s goals.
- Lack of team understanding – if there isn’t mutual clarity among team members about a project’s parameters and goals, then it will be harder to identify what is and isn't within the scope, and pointless work may end up being completed.
- Poor communication – there are many different people involved in a project, including the project manager, team members, project stakeholders, and more. Insufficient communication between these parties can lead to a poorly defined project full of unmanaged changes.
- Lack of change mechanism – projects that don’t have a clearly defined mechanism that allows for changes to be made and feedback to be implemented are much more susceptible to scope creep than those that manage change efficiently and methodically.
Remember, scope creep isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can occur, for instance, if someone has a good idea – so good, in fact, that it changes the course of the project or turns it into a bigger workload. Plus, it is the client’s project after all, and you can’t just keep saying no to changes they’re demanding – in many cases, the calls will only get louder.
Examples of Scope Creep
When grappling with concepts – especially ones like scope creep that should be avoided at all costs – it’s often useful to look at some examples in different contexts. Unsurprisingly, some of the most famous projects in the world have suffered from serious scope creep – here are three of them:
Denver International Airport’s Baggage Handling System
One of the most common examples used to illustrate how scope creep can negatively affect a project is the building of Denver International Airport in the mid-1990s, which ended up being completed 16 months behind schedule and 250% over budget.
Overall, during the project’s duration, over 2,100 design changes were made to the baggage handling system.
The reason for the issue was largely due to the decision to try to create a fully automated baggage handling system. Warnings that no construction company could even build such a vast, snaking system of conveyor belts, laser scanners, and computers were ignored. The system was subject to public ridicule after a shambolic attempt at a demonstration led to crushed bags and scattered clothes.
Overall, during the project’s duration, over 2,100 design changes were made to the baggage handling system. The alterations created a knock-on effect of more problems, and it became evident that almost everything about the project, from its technical intricacies to its budget, had been gravely underestimated.
The Sydney Opera House
The building of the Sydney Opera House in Australia is a prime example of scope creep. The project was supposed to take four years, and be achievable on a budget of $7 million AUD. It ended up taking around 14 years to complete and cost $102 million AUD.
There was a lack of communication between the architect Jørn Utzon, the construction company and the engineers. So poor was the relationship that Utzon avoided having a telephone in his office so that they could not contact him.
The scope of the project was confused from the start by the decision to name it an ‘Opera House’, taken to avoid criticism (Sydney already had a concert hall) despite plans for it to be used for all kinds of live performances – and it was never changed.
There was also a lack of communication between architect Jørn Utzon, the construction company, and the engineers. So poor was the relationship that Utzon avoided having a telephone in his office so that they could not contact him.
Along with poor communication between stakeholders and parties, there were also poor decisions made in the planning stage. The panel that selected Utzon, for example, was made up exclusively of architects, and there were no designers or engineers. The client was also not present. Not involving knowledgeable representatives from different teams working on the project created confusion from the get-go.
Scope creep as a result of poor communication and collaboration can be particularly damaging if it occurs at the start of a project and isn’t identified until later on. This is what happened to Airbus in 2004 when its A380 aircraft was being built.
Pieces of the plane were designed all around the world, but after they were shipped to the assembly site in Germany, it quickly became apparent that none of the pieces actually fitted together. This was due to designers using different CAD (computer-aided design) programs, which made all of their measurements different and difficult to change.
This is another case that emphasizes how scope creep can easily occur if the project parameters are not clearly laid out and analyzed, or if teams are unwilling to collaborate at the level required by the project.
How to Avoid Scope Creep
There are a number of steps you can take to avoid scope creep in your project. Some of these tips directly correlate with the causes of scope creep. Scope creep can be avoided with:
- Meticulous planning – the more time you spend investigating all the directions a project could take you in, the more prepared you’ll be for potential changes of tack, and the better understanding you’ll have of the true scope of the project.
- Constant communication – it’s a simple fact that the more clued in team members are – especially about what other teams/individuals are working on – the less likely it is for decisions to be made without essential information.
- A clear project schedule/goal – this is closely related to the above tip about keeping channels of communication open. Creating a clear schedule should involve input from project stakeholders, in order to minimize confusion and ensure that fewer changes have to be made once the project is underway.
- A willingness to admit mistakes – the examples discussed above show how scope creep becomes significantly worse when mistakes aren’t dealt with once identified and are instead an ‘error carried forward’.
- Change to management processes – implementing a management plan for changes and risks will allow modifications to take place without the project’s parameters spiraling out of control. No change should be made without an explanation of how it impacts project timelines, risks, and costs, and even then it should be signed off by stakeholders.
How Does Project Management Software Avoid Scope Creep?
If someone gave you 5,000 data points relating to a business’ customer base and asked you to organize them in a clear, accessible way so team members could reference and/or modify the end result, would you just dump it all in a Microsoft Word or Google Doc, or put it into a spreadsheet?
Anyone with experience working in an office will opt for a spreadsheet – it’s clearer, simpler, and most importantly, it’s specifically designed to store and organize large amounts of numerical data. The lesson from this analogy is this: software dedicated to aiding you with certain tasks will always be the most efficient option for those tasks.
Project management software is specifically designed to mitigate many of the problems that arise during projects, including scope creep. It can boost a team's efficiency by providing a one-stop shop for all their project needs.
Project management software allows users to plan in granular detail and, most importantly, instantly share those plans with their teams on an accessible interface.
Project management software will help you visualize your project from start to finish, and will give you a foundation upon which to organize your team. Duties, responsibilities, and task assignments relating to each team member can all be laid out simply, making the project clearer to everyone involved.
Nowadays, top-quality project management software will typically include a bunch of other features as well. Guest Access, for instance, which is available in software like Zoho Projects, will allow stakeholders to view a project's progress.
Some providers offer instant chat too, allowing for better communication. There are also task dependencies, which will show you exactly what tasks need to be completed before another task can be started.
In a more general sense, project management software allows users to plan in granular detail and, most importantly, share those plans with their teams instantly on mutually accessible pages. We’ve spent 80+ hours testing project management software at Tech.co, and have narrowed down the best providers for you to compare:
All prices listed as per user, per month (billed annually)
Best for Task Management and Collaboration
Best for Spreadsheet fans
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Powerful, feature-rich software suitable for teams of all sizes, with an impressive free tier for individuals, and a great value plans for teams.
Incredibly easy to use, great for small businesses and our top-performing providers on test – and there's a generous free trial period.
A great tool for spreadsheet-natives, which can take your Excel-based task planning to the next level, and there's a free plan, too.
A very capable yet pricey service with a huge number of useful integrations, plus a free tier option to try.
A great user experience all round, with an easy-to-use automation builder and great budget tracking capabilities.
A solid project management solution with an attractive free tier for small teams and a very affordable premium plan.
A fairly-priced, stripped-down option best for small teams who need a central location for basic task management.
A very basic, relatively limited software that's a lot simpler than its competitors.
A great value piece of software that's ideal for tech, software development and engineering teams.
A simple task-list-based project management platform with an acceptable free tier.
How to Recover From Scope Creep
It’s likely that if you and your project team are consistently experiencing major scope creep, then there’s a problem with your project processes. Here’s an example:
- Scenario: A conversation with your client for an app-building project has revealed a key misunderstanding about what functionalities the app should have. Instead of three key functionalities, it needs four. As a result, deadlines are pushed back, teams are enlarged and the scope of the project is widened.
- The problem: The development team and the client’s conceptions of what needs to be created were not aligned from the start.
- The solution: Hold a meeting with your stakeholders and rediscuss the entire project from top to bottom, making sure that you understand their full requirements. A formal meeting like this where everything can be signed off will stop the scope from creeping wider still.
In more general terms, recovery involves:
- Identifying the problem – What change has taken place or has been requested? What new demand is being placed on the team members?
- Assessing the scope change – How significant will the change be? What resources and budget allocations are needed to action it? Will deadlines have to be shifted?
- Reorganizing – Based on the scope change assessment, how should the team be reorganized to accommodate any new changes?
- Ensuring it doesn’t happen again – What change or process can be implemented to make sure that the project’s scope doesn’t widen again?
Recovering from scope creep can be difficult, but regaining control of your project can be liberating. Simply knowing about the concept and being attuned to your project’s progress will allow you to sniff it out as early as possible. And remember, like many things, the earlier scope creep is caught, the better.
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