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Is Scope Creep an Asset?

written by: Bruce Tyson • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 5/19/2011

When projects exceed budgets and miss deadlines, the blame is often placed on scope creep, a nasty inanimate beast that results from poor planning, nonexistent safeguards, and sloppy management. Incremental changes to the scope of a project can have positive elements, but can scope creep be good?

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    What is Scope?

    Scope is the element of a project plan that defines what work will be done, to what extent that work will be done, and what the results will be when completed. This boundary set around the project is designed to keep the project focused, on track, within budget, and in control. By limiting the project team to work that is relevant to project deliverables, project managers can improve the project's chance for success.

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    Client-Initiated Scope Creep

    Project teams meet with stakeholders at the outset to build a project plan that will address its mission and scope. Oftentimes, however, customers ScopeCreepHappens do not fully understand what they want at the start of the project and their knowledge (and desire) develops over time. Once clients see the preliminary deliverables from the project, they are more capable of determining what they actually want. These changes add to the scope of the project as the organization seeks to deliver a final product that brings satisfaction to the customer.

    Scope creep can also occur when a client finds out that the company has capabilities of which the client was not initially aware or when the client learns new details about a competing product. With this knowledge, the client presses for changes to the project, often at little or no additional cost.

    Project managers often feel trapped in these cases because they must accommodate client change requests to keep the customer happy, but the process of reviewing the changes with the stakeholders can be uncomfortable to say the least. Scope creep results when a project manager accepts a client change request without making adjustments to the project budget and timeline.

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    Internally-Initiated Scope Creep

    Another, more insidious, source of scope creep comes from inside the organization. Team members develop new knowledge over time just as customers do, leading to changes that can improve deliverables. Implementing such changes might seem harmless, but they can result in catastrophe when unintended consequences to those changes emerge. This becomes more devastating than client-initiated scope creep because little ground exists to share the additional costs with the client. Because pressure for some of these changes can emanate from superiors, how to avoid scope creep often eludes project managers.

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    Fighting Scope Creep

    In the fight against scope creep, project planning should be well defined and well documented in order to keep scope creep at bay. Since much of the problem pertains to customer involvement, the customer should be included in the planning process at the earliest point possible. Customers should be brought in to review preliminary deliverables and prototypes as soon as possible to minimize the costliness of any changes. The project plan can even define the level of changes which mandate review by the stakeholders for possible budgetary and scheduling realignment. By defining what a “significant" change, planners can avoid uncomfortable situations in late project stages when cost overruns become more apparent.

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    By defining what a “significant" change is, planners can avoid uncomfortable situations in late project stages when cost overruns become more apparent. Even when scope creep doesn’t trigger safeguards, project managers can defend the project and themselves from internal and external scope creep pressures by remembering that the alleged benefits of changes to scope are usually significantly overestimated.

    For reducing scope creep and for personal protection, the project manager must make sure that stakeholders approve project plans and changes made to it in writing. This not only makes people more reluctant to press for changes in scope, it gives the project manager a paper trail that will help document why things went wrong.

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    Is Scope Creep Always Bad?

    When can scope creep be a good thing? Even thought it is blamed for excessive costs, delays, failed projects, and a lot of additional work, some people emphasize the positive elements of scope creep. To begin with, customers benefit from scope creep, primarily when they get more than what was originally included in the project’s scope. Furthermore, a certain perspective on scope creep could say that it benefits companies because they are able to retain customers without losing the sunk cost of a project. In certain way, scope creep can benefit project management teams because it gives them cause to reevaluate internal processes in effort to reduce scope creep in future activities. Finally, because scope creep often requires companies to deliver new products and services, it has the potential to develop new revenue streams for the business while sometimes allowing the client to finance some or all of their development costs.

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    Scope Creep is More Bad Than Good

    One reason scope creep is such a problem is that project managers either do not adequately analyze the cost versus benefits of scope changes or do not communicate the impact of the changes adequately to the project’s stakeholders. Also, in effort to please the client or superiors, project managers don’t even want to know what the impact of the changes are

    Scope creep can potentially have beneficial elements, but the positive results gained through it tend to be very costly and sometimes inefficient. The potentially catastrophic consequences of scope creep make it a devilish enemy against which project managers should aggressively resist. Learning how to avoid scope creep could be one of the most valuable project management lessons ever learned.