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Stop Scope Creep Running Away With Your Project

Scope Management | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Scope creep spelt out in colourful wooden blocks on a white background

Scope creep one of the most common reasons projects run over budget and deliver late. Often done with the best intentions, it is best to avoid or limit changes to scope during the project execution phase.

Most project managers have experienced a case where the customer asks for something outside the scope agreed and expects it included in the project at no extra cost. They might be acting as if it was always in scope.

Defining the boundaries of a project can be complex, and without a precise definition, you could be heading for difficulties.

What is Project Scope?

The scope is what a project manager commits to deliver early in the life of a project. Definition of the scope takes place during the requirements analysis phase. The project manager and their team identify what is needed to achieve the project objectives, working closely with the customer and the end-users. The scope is recorded in the project documentation and agreed upon by all concerned parties.

What Causes Scope Creep?

The primary causes of scope creep are:

  • Poor requirements analysis.
  • Not involving users in the early stages of a project.
  • Underestimating the complexity of the project.
  • Lack of a change control process.
  • Gold plating.

Let's take a look at each in more detail.

Poor Requirements Analysis

The Problem

Customers don't always know what they want precisely and often have only a basic idea. I'll know it when I see it syndrome. Failure to spend enough time gathering business requirements (or assuming you know what is needed) can lead to a need for extra resources, increased cost and longer durations when new requirements emerge. In short, when the scope creeps.

The Solution

Ensure you understand the customer's project vision. Spend time documenting and agreeing on the project objectives with the customer. Produce a project initiation document that describes the deliverables and the result. It's a good idea to document what is out of scope and what is in scope for absolute clarity. Agree on this document with the customer, spend the time walking them through it, and ask them to sign it off. Don't continue to the next stage without a firm agreement.

Not Involving Users in the Early Stages of a Project

The Problem

Thinking you know what the users want or need is a grave mistake. It is essential to involve them in the requirements analysis and design phases. The more involvement users have in the project's early stages, the more likely you avoid scope creep.

The Solution

Involve the users from the beginning of the project, encouraging them to participate in the requirements gathering and design phases. Where possible, incorporate their suggestions and ideas into the product. In software development projects, document how the users will interact with the software and develop test cases for use later. Agree on the requirements and design with all the projects stakeholders before the execution phase starts.

Underestimating the Complexity of the Project

The Problem

You can often crudely predict success or failure by looking at whether similar projects have been successful in the past.

Some projects run into problems because they are new and have never before been attempted. Nobody knows what to expect. There are no lessons learned and no people to ask. Under these circumstances, scope creep may be hard to avoid, causing budget overruns and late delivery.

The Solution

These projects need to have a degree of contingency built into them. Include some slack in your project plan to prevent unforeseen issues and events derailing your project. Increase the budget to account for extra resources that you may need. However, please don't overdo it. Being significantly under budget and early delivery is often viewed negatively.

Lack of a Change Control Process

The Problem

You can expect a degree of scope creep in most projects. It is essential to design a process to manage these changes. Experienced project managers adopt a simple method to documenting, considering, approving, and resourcing any changes.

The Solution

Introduce a change control form and changelog from the start of the project. Communicate its use to the customer and project team. A formally written change request will allow you to assess the business benefit of any change and gain approval before including it as an addition to the scope. Attach a cost and time to each change, so the customer is clear about its impact. Asking the customer to go through a formal process helps ensure a clear business value for any changes.

Gold Plating

The Problem

Gold plating is the term given to the practice of exceeding the scope of a project in the belief it is adding value. In my experience, it is not unusual for software developers to add new features and functions in software development projects believing they will increase customer satisfaction. These changes consume time and budget and are certainly not guaranteed to increase satisfaction.

The Solution

Please make sure all team members know the project scope and concentrate on delivering it and nothing more. Ensure specifications are detailed enough to avoid the ambiguity that may lead to unnecessary work.

Reward team members for delivering to specification, on time and on budget. Make it clear that they are not to add undocumented features but instead put them through your change control process.

Let the customer decide what to do with any time or money left at the end of the project.


Ensure you set expectations correctly at the beginning of a project, working closely with the customer and users to define what is in and out of scope. Record it in the project initiation document. Spend time with the customer to walk them through the document and ensure they understand and agree on the scope. Don't continue without a firm agreement.

Often, it's not possible to avoid increasing scope during a project, especially if there is a sound business reason to do so. However, the project manager must manage any change correctly. Design a change control process to ensure all changes get documented, considered, approved and resourced appropriately.

Alternatively, you may wish to prevent changes from being added piecemeal during the project and may decide to record them for a later phase of the project. This approach allows delivery of the agreed phase on time, budget, and management of any changes separately.

Suppose you consider that only 29%[1] of all projects fully succeed. In that case, you are better off spending your time delivering the requirements agreed at the beginning of the project and avoiding gold plating.

Scope creep causes many project failures. You can ensure it doesn't affect your projects by taking these straightforward measures.

[1] The Standish Group International, Inc. CHAOS Report 2015. Boston, MA 02109: The Standish Group International, Inc., 2015.

Author's note: Where budget and time increase with scope, the change is not usually considered scope creep.

Recommended read: Improve Project Success with Better Scope Management, by Avneet Mathur.


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