Scope Creep in Project Management and how to prevent it

Scope creep is one of the most common risks associated with project management. However, we will first need to understand what is project scope in order to know what is scope creep.

What is scope of a project?

Project scope refers to all the volume of work that is required to be completed in order to complete a project. Project managers generally use a work breakdown structure (WBS) to identify individual tasks, deliverables and activities related to the project. Apart from it, they also need a project scope statement. A scope statement is a project planning document in which project managers define the scope of a project.

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What is scope creep in project management?

Scope creep happens when sudden changes are introduced to a project without a proper change management plan in place. Project managers need to have control procedures like change requests in place without which introducing changes to the project scope will result in scope creep. Such changes affect the schedule and budget of the project and can also cause costs to grow and negatively affect the achievement of goals and key milestones. However, such problems are quite common and scope creep is among the most common problems related with project management.

Several times clients or some other stakeholder might introduce a new requirement when the project has already reached the execution phase. At this stage, such changes are not properly reviewed before being introduced into the project. So, the burden on the project team grows. The number of tasks, deliverables and milestones can grow but the time and resources will remain the same as the original scope. In simpler terms, while the scope of the project grows, its budget and the time required to complete the project do not.

Several times, project managers may grow bothered by the number of changes being requested. For example, the list of approved changes may keep growing and while you think that you have reached the final stage, each time a new request for change crops up like a new product feature and you remain involved with the same project for long.

However, project managers can prevent scope creep. All they need is to have plans for managing risks, changes and the scope of the project.

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Scope management plan:

The scope management plan is included in the project plan and outlines how the scope of the project will be controlled. The scope management plan is crucial for helping the stakeholders understand the project scope baseline and the impact of changes on the overall project. The project plan includes the WBS, scope statement and the process through which the stakeholders will approve the project scope as a baseline for the project.

Change management plan:

Changes can always happen to any project. However, to be able to properly control and manage these changes, the project managers need to have a change management plan. Projects never progress as initially planned. You will hardly come across a scenario where a project progressed just as initially outlined in the original project plan.

Risk management plan:

Several times, scope creep may occur because either the stakeholders, or clients or team members did not properly follow the scope and the change management procedures. In such a case, the project manager would need to refer to his risk management plan.

The risk management plan generally includes the strategies, roles, responsibilities and funding for managing risks. It is a document that project managers need to refer to for mitigating risks like scope creep when they arise.

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An example of scope creep:

Imagine a scenario in which a client was working with a project manager for developing a software. He added new requirements when the project was in the planning phase. The project manager added the new requirements to the scope but the client kept adding more changes. While the project manager was not having a problem adding new features, change requests were to be submitted and extra resources be provided to complete the extra work added to the original scope.

The client was frustrated as the deadline was approaching and work was proceeding very slow. While the client had provided extra resources to complete the extra requirements, there was the time constraint. The project manager had everything required to complete the project including the additional requirements, except the time he needed. As a result, he failed to deliver within the project schedule baseline. He tried explaining to the client that the baselined project plan was quite ambitious to be completed on schedule but the client had grown frustrated and removed him from the project.

Such scenarios are common across the industry and scope creep can always stifle progress. However, here are some ways that managers can keep control of project scope creep:

Ways to control scope creep:

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Clearly note the project requirements:

It is important that you clearly define and document the project requirements at the outset. It is a useful method to avoid scope creep. When you clearly define the project requirements, it allows you to set the scope of the project clearly. First try to learn clearly from the project stakeholders and clients what they want and need from the project. Even if clients offer conflicting requirements, first try to settle the conflicts. Note the important requirements first, since it might not be possible to meet all the requirements at the same time.

It might take some time to note down all the requirements of the project but once you have done it, it will make your task easier. You can document it all in the form of a requirement management plan. This must include all the information required to managing the project requirements like tracking the requirements or changing them. You can also share the document online where it is accessible to team members and stakeholders.

Establish change control processes:

Once you have documented all the important requirements, you will also need to implement all the change control process. It is impossible to say that nothing will change during the course of the project. You first need to manage and control change to manage scope creep. So, the project manager will first need the change management plan outlining the change control process for making any changes to the project scope. Apart from it, the important thing is to have a risk management plan that will include how often the project’s status will be monitored to identify risks like scope creep.

Generally, change control process requires submitting a change request. Once someone files a change request, the request is reviewed and then accepted or rejected. If the change request is approved then the change will be included in the project plan.

To implement the change management process, you will also need to decide that who is going to review and approve the change requests. It can be discussed with the team or the project sponsor.

Create a clear project schedule:

The next step is to create a clear project schedule. Once you have defined the project scope on the basis of the requirements, you can create a detailed task list using a WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). The WBS should include all the requirements and how they are going to be achieved in the form of tasks, activities and milestones. Generally, a Gantt Chart is used to do this.

Cross check your project schedule with the requirements management plan to see if you have missed anything. Once you have outlined the schedule, you will need to have a contingency plan.  If you do not handle changes according to your change management plan, scope creep will occur.

Verify the project scope with stakeholders:

Once you have created the project scope, it is important to verify it with the project sponsor. Sometimes what you might understand about the project deliverables might be different from what the sponsor meant. Often people come to realize the difference quite late.  You can share the project requirements with the project sponsor, client or investors and show them the schedule to ensure that the tasks and deliverables are all there on the list. Even if the project sponsor might have changed his mind regarding product features or delivery times, you must be able to identify it before the execution stage. This will mitigate the risk of scope creep since identifying these things later will only increase the risk.

Based on these things, you can also talk to your sponsor about the change control process. Let them know how you are going to manage change and what approval they must offer you before you proceed.  At this time, you can also talk to the sponsor about any new requirements they might add in the course of the project and how much extra it might cost them. Keep your stakeholders informed. Let them know what stage of the project you are in.

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Engage the team members:

Apart from involving your project stakeholders, it is important to keep your team members engaged and happy. Let them know about the change control process and how it will affect them. Let them know about the change approval process and how it will be used to prevent scope creep. If they want to help any stakeholder with the change approval process, the can explain the change control process to them and help them with documenting the change request.