Avoiding Scope Creep: A Review of the Ethical Implications of Scope Creep

Avoiding Scope Creep: A Review of the Ethical Implications of Scope Creep
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What Is Scope Creep?

Project management scope creep refers to uncontrolled changes in the scope of a project, usually by adding new products or new features to approved product designs without corresponding increases in resources, schedules, or budgets.

Some deviations from the agreed project design is natural and expected by both the project manager and the client. Scope creep, however, comes when the nature of changes required becomes large and significant causing the project to overrun its budget and schedule. The ethical implications of scope creep is a major negative ramification in this situation. Organizations need to look towards avoiding scope creep, for left unchecked, it can cause scope creep project failure.

Disingenuous Clients

One major reason for the occurrence of project management scope creep is a disingenuous client on the lookout for extra value at no additional cost. Such clients don’t reveal their entire requirement at the onset and agree to the initial project design containing incomplete specifications. Once the project is underway, they attempt to change the project scope to squeeze in extra features for free. Since the project team has already budgeted and quoted a competitive price to secure the project based on the original project specifications, the extra features demanded by the client could result in reduced profits or even a loss.

Countering “value for free” tactics adopted by a determined disingenuous customer is a difficult challenge for even the most experienced project managers. The project team invariably gives in to the scope creep requirements because abandoning the project midway could result in an even greater loss. Further, this conflict with the client could result in delayed payments or unnecessary legal tangles.

Weak Project Managers

It is the project manager’s job to use meetings, questionnaires, interviews, and all other methods such as project outlines to discover the client’s requirement. Opportunities for project scope creep occurs when the project manager does not properly define, document, or control the project specifications at the onset. The best way of avoiding scope creep is to effect a fool-proof project charter.

Three possible ethical scenarios emerge when it becomes apparent that the project won’t serve the client’s purpose without some additions by the project manager:

  • The project manager would invariably have to give in to the scope creep demands, and the organization suffers losses due to the project manager’s indiscretion.
  • Ethical implications of scope creep might be the result of an unscrupulous project manager’s collusion with the customer’s “value for free” tactics.
  • If the project manager remains adamant and sticks to the provisions of the initial contract, the customer would suffer in terms of receiving an incomplete product when he trusted the organization to deliver a complete and usable product. Even with scope creep incorporated, the customer suffers due to the delayed project execution.

Ethical Impact on Other Stakeholders

A major ethical implication of scope creep is that although it usually results from either a disingenuous customer or a weak project manager, non-responsible stakeholders bear the brunt of the adverse situation.

  1. Employees: Project management scope creep results in extra work at no additional costs and this translates to employees receiving not only an additional workload but working extra time and receiving no additional benefits. Scope creep ends the formal project arrangement and the scope of the project from this point on remains in a state of constant flux. Much of the efforts such as development, sales, and quality assurance initially undertaken become obsolete or redundant.
  2. Third Party Beneficiaries: Scope creep results in project delays that harm the intended beneficiary of the project, and delays could mean that some of the intended beneficiaries do not enjoy the benefits at all. This is especially true with public projects where the intended beneficiary of a project and the customer who pays for the project are two different parties.

Enterprising organizations face the challenge of converting the threats faced by project management scope creep into opportunities and dealing proactively with the ethical implications of scope creep to ensure a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Failure to do so can even lead to scope creep project failure cases.


Conducting and Managing Commissioned Research: British Education Research Association retreived at https://www.bera.ac.uk/commissioning-and-consuming-research-in-education/conducting-and-managing-commissioned-research/

A Abramovici. (2000). Controlling Scope Creep. PM Network-Project Management.

Image Credit: Aaron Tait: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aarontait/