Beware of the scope creep

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H appy Halloween! As I write this column, our community is decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons, and other objects associated with scary things. Whether you personally celebrate a happy fall festival or a scary Halloween, I thought it might be a good time to reflect upon some of the things that are spooky to a business owner. One thing that comes to mind to those who manage service and project-based work like my company is the dreaded scope creep.

Although I can envision a literal “scope creep” as a type of monster, it’s actually a phenomenon experienced by almost everyone who manages a project. By definition, a project has a definitive starting point, an ending point, and an agreed-upon list of tasks/deliverables. Examples of projects one might find in our community include: constructing a new building, upgrading a computer network, launching a new business, or filming a movie. As a digital marketing agency, most of the work we do is project-based: building websites, developing brands, managing marketing, and so forth. Projects are governed by a contract or charter that lays out the project scope – time frames, costs, work products, and expectations.

Perhaps the biggest threat to a project is the dreaded scope creep, who rears his ugly head to endanger the project. What is scope creep? The very word creep brings to mind something that is sneaky and stays out of plain view. Scope creep is when unexpected pressures are made upon a project, without accounting for those pressures. The creep often starts off as small, unrelated changes that have the additive effect of putting the whole project in danger of not being completed. Think of the project as a container into which tasks are placed. If too many tasks are added (i.e. scope creep), then the container will not be able to hold everything. The boundaries of a project container are defined by cost, timeframe, and resources.

When I managed projects before starting my business, most of our contracts were time and materials based. Any changes to scope necessitated a corresponding increase in billing – more hours, more billing. Over the years many industries, including mine, shifted to fixed contract pricing or retainers. Customers wanted financial certainty, so pricing shifted to a fixed price for a fixed set of deliverables. The problem is that many people have selective memory – only remembering price and deadline, not the agreed-upon deliverables or action items. Some scope creep is inevitable as unanticipated circumstances change during the course of the project, but most scope creep is avoidable.

With over 30 years of project management experience, I can honestly say the number one reason for scope creep is simply people changing their minds. This seems to be universal, regardless of the type of project. In some endeavors a client will rubber stamp incremental work approvals (e.g. sign off on a proof or design comp), only to change their mind at the very end of the project. I hear things like this, “I know that’s what I asked for, but now that I see it – it’s not what I want.” At other times, the scope creep appears in the middle of the project when the work is being done, revised, revised again, etc. Most companies, mine included, want a customer to have what they want but we also need to be paid for extra work. The conflict comes in when a client assumes the change request is small or that they are entitled to changes at no additional cost.

On very rare occasions I’ve had clients voluntarily offer to pay a fee for a change request, even without asking. In fact, one time a non-profit client of ours sent us extra money with their invoice payment – inside was a note, “Sorry we were such a pain and asked you to change our donation system several times. We appreciate you working with us.” That was a few years ago and much appreciated. From time to time I’ve even had clients come forward and tell us that we weren’t charging them enough! It’s normally not like that, however.

Scope creep happens on most projects, so it’s important to know how to handle it upfront. Here are some tips on how to handle it from the perspective of the customer and the business:

  1. Recognize that scope creep will almost certainly happen. Have contingency plans to address change requests. I normally anticipate up to a 20% increase in work effort based on typical change requests. We build that into our project plans.
  2. Clearly document what the costs are for typical changes in the contract or retainer agreement. For example, we might offer two revisions to a graphic design for free, but charge a fixed fee for each additional revision. Make sure customers know what the extra charges are ahead of time, that builds trust in the process.
  3. Be willing to be flexible. If a client asks for a change and its equivalent work to the original plan, we simply try to accommodate it at no extra charge. That’s an even swap.
  4. Setup limits to your flexibility. The old adage, “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile” is true with some people. Even an “unlimited lunch buffet” typically has limits on how many trips to the food bar you can make. Most people are reasonable, but some people aren’t – they need limits.
  5. If you’re a customer, understand that most businesses want you to be happy but that they need to make money. Be reasonable in your requests.
  6. Both business and customer need to make sure the project scope reflects reality. Over time, project drift can occur when scope creep causes the vision to change. Left unchecked, neither party knows what the finish line looks like.
  7. Document everything to maximize understanding. We use contracts, change requests, support tickets, and sign-offs to help facilitate communication. Memories can be selective, so even if a client wants a meeting or a phone call, a set of notes is always generated. It’s good that clients take notes as well to ensure nothing is left out.
  8. Maybe the most important is having a collaborative attitude. The business and the client should work together to achieve success. Working on a project when there’s a test of wills is counter-productive and mutually frustrating.

Don’t let the scope creep scare you. He’s out there, but if you know how to deal with it ahead of time, he’s not so scary. Happy Fall / Halloween.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]