what is scope creep

What is scope creep?

Reading time: about 6 min

Before starting a project, it’s important to have a clear sense of scope. In other words, you need to know where you’re going (the final product) and how you’re getting there (the time, resources, and labor required to produce said product). 

This information can be documented in a variety of ways. Think project scope statements, statements of work, and work breakdown structures. It doesn’t matter which method your team uses—the important thing is that you document the project scope. 

That being said, don’t get too attached to the first iteration of your documentation. It’s not unusual for the scope of a project to change while it is underway—it’s expected, even. And these changes aren’t necessarily a problem. (Emphasis on necessarily.) 

It’s the informal, unauthorized changes to a project’s scope that you need to watch out for. These types of changes lead to scope creep, which can quickly derail a project.

So what is scope creep? Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of scope creep, its cause, and, most importantly, how to avoid it. 

Scope creep: An overview and definition

Before defining scope creep, let’s quickly go over what exactly scope means. In project management, there are two parts to scope: product scope and project scope. 

Think of product scope as a list of requirements and features: What will the finished product look like? Project scope, on the other hand, refers to the work that will go into the product. You’ll want to carefully define and document both before starting a project. 

Now let’s take a look at scope creep. Scope creep refers to any unauthorized changes to product scope—adding additional features or requirements through informal conversations. 

At this point, you’re probably starting to see where the name comes from. When features are added to a product scope without going through any formal authorization process, the scope gradually becomes more and more extensive—it creeps forward, often unbeknownst to many team members. 

What’s so bad about scope creep?

The scope of projects changes, almost inevitably. So what makes scope creep so bad? The easiest way to answer that question is with a scope creep example.

One of the most infamous—and disastrous—examples of scope creep occurred at the Denver airport in 1995. The airport’s designers had big plans for an automated baggage system: 26 miles of track laid under the airport would whisk passengers’ luggage all throughout the airport, meeting passengers wherever they were headed. In theory, at least. (The baggage system was riddled with errors, but that’s another story.) 

The system’s implementation was delayed by 16 months and the project ran millions of dollars over its budget. Why? The short answer is scope creep. 

Under pressure from certain airlines, designers made over 2,000 undocumented and unauthorized changes to the design. By the end of the debacle, the airport was running up additional costs at a rate of $1 million per day. And that went on for four months!

The Denver airport is an extreme example, but you might see similar issues arise from scope creep in your own projects. There are three main risks posed by scope creep:

Projects will likely run past deadlines and over budget constraints

This is the main lesson from the Denver airport. Because scope creep changes the product scope without adjusting the project scope (the resources, timeline, etc.), it can cause projects to take longer than anticipated and cost much more money. 

Leaves less time for approved scope 

When team members devote time to making unapproved changes to a product, it cuts into the time they have to work on the approved, agreed upon features. This can have a negative impact on the quality of the product and set the project behind schedule.

Final product does not meet expectations

Scope creep often leaves some stakeholders in the dark. Changes don’t go through a formal approval process, so not everyone is in the loop. This can lead to differences between the final product and expectations. 

What causes scope creep?

There are dozens of ways scope creep can, well, creep into your projects, but most instances are caused by one of four things: 

1. A vague or undefined statement of work 

Remember way back at the beginning of this post when we talked about documenting scope? You’re probably starting to understand why thorough documentation is so important. If you don’t clearly outline the scope of a project, expectations are vague. And vague expectations are liable to change. 

2. Undocumented conversations and agreements between clients and team members 

If you or other team members are meeting with your client, make it a formal meeting. Off-the-books conversations and informal requests can quickly lead to promises that aren’t reflected in the scope document. And those promises often lead to scope creep.

3. Poor communication 

At any given point in a project, all stakeholders should know exactly what the client is expecting. In other words, everyone should be familiar with the product scope. Any changes to that scope should be communicated to all stakeholders.

4. Unrealistic time frames and over-promising 

Over-promising is often a product of poor communication: The sales team promises a client one thing, while the development team can’t feasibly keep up. If any team members are promising features to clients, be sure to go through a formal authorization process. Otherwise, your team will be scrambling to deliver features they didn’t know they needed to create.

Managing and preventing scope creep

So how can you avoid and manage scope creep? Fortunately, it’s not too hard—you just have to be proactive and establish clear processes. 

While there’s no “right way” to prevent scope creep, there are a number of steps you can take to help minimize scope creep and its effects. These include: 

Establishing clear change control processes: Mid-project changes are almost inevitable, but they don’t have to lead to scope creep. You and your team should have a change control process in place to request, assess, and implement (or reject) changes to a project’s scope. Essentially, you should have an authorization process in place to help avoid unauthorized changes to the scope. 

Regularly update project scope documentation: If you make changes to a project’s scope, be sure to update project documentation to reflect those changes. A clear authorization process (as mentioned above) can help formalize the process and keep your scope up to date.

Keep stakeholders aware and aligned: From clients to team members, it’s important to keep all stakeholders on the same page. If any changes are made to a project’s scope, make sure everyone is informed. As you update scope documentation, make sure each stakeholder has access to the most accurate and up-to-date versions. 

what is scope creep
Stakeholder map template (click on image to modify online)

You may have noticed a common thread connecting each step listed above: They all require clear and effective communication. Easier said than done, right? 

With Lucidspark, communication and collaboration don’t have to be difficult. Lucidspark allows you and other stakeholders to collaborate on documentation in real time. And because it’s cloud-based, all of your team members will have access to the most up-to-date information whenever they need it.

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