Techniques for Navigating Scope Creep on a Project

  • 25 March, 2022

Scope creep: it can be the bane of existence for many project managers, a phrase that may send shivers down your spine when you are in the midst of trying to make a tight deadline. Not to fear there are proven ways to manage scope creep in your project, and we will go through the best ways to manage it in this article.

Chances are that if you have been a project manager for any substantial amount of time, you have encountered the oh so dreaded scope creep problem. Scope creep refers to continuous growth in a project's deliverables after work has already begun, to the point where it becomes uncontrolled or unmanageable. One of the keys to managing scope creep is ensuring that you have an effective project plan in place before work begins. Let's go through what you can do during the initiating and planning phases of a project to get ahead of scope creep. If executed correctly, project planning will save a lot of headaches with your stakeholders in the future.

Techniques for Navigating Scope Creep on a Project

1. Before Work Begins

1.1 Define clear objectives. Your project charter should be your North Star. When initiating a project, this "short and sweet"document should explain exactly what the project is meant to accomplish in clear and concise terms. After you have drafted the charter, verify with your project team that the work approved in the project charter has not overpromised deliverables to your business stakeholders.

Im addition, it will be essential that you refer back to this document later on. It will guide discussion when introducing new potential scope and analyzing if it aligns with the goals that have already been agreed upon.

1.2 Set aside adequate time for risk management. Make sure you have identified, to the best of your ability, the different departments, vendors, and/or businesses that will need to be involved in your project. Have action plans in place to mitigate potential risks that may present themselves when executing work, especially if your project is knowledge-based (such as a software development project). Getting your project working in the way that is expected by your stakeholders will never be as straightforward as it seems, but with proper risk management, you can identify early on what may become additional necessary scope.

1.3 Document requirements and keep "project vs product"in mind! When conducting risk management activities with your stakeholders and your project team, it is important for requirements gathering sessions to be part of planning. When meeting with your project team in a group, perhaps in planning sessions, you should hold time specifically dedicated to documenting requirements. Use this time before work begins to get on the same page with your team about what is necessary and what is not in order to achieve the goals of the project. Always remember that a project is not necessarily a product. On a complex project, a project manager may be working with product owners who want improvements made to their products. It is important to look for solutions that will enable the project to get delivered without unnecessarily making enhancements to products that are not in the project scope.

1.4 Maintain a disciplined configuration management plan. Have a good configuration management plan in place, detailing how change requests to the project will be managed, how documents will maintain versioning history, and how information will be reported to your stakeholders. Performing configuration management can be considered a bit tedious, but it is one of the most important ways to maintain control over your project and save a lot of time later.

Your change request process should consider the levels of approval needed to change the scope of the project, as well as a detailed review of the new scope. You should consult the project charter when changes are requested on your project to determine whether the new work is necessary to achieve the project goals. Part of your change review process should also involve analysis of the value that the change will add relative to the level of effort involved. It is up to you to use your defined change management process to determine whether scope changes are worth escalating up the chain of approval.

1.5 Effectively plan communications to stakeholders. - When planning a project, prioritizing effective communication should not be overlooked. Ensure that your stakeholders receive information when they need it. This will help them make informed decisions and understand why or why not new project scope will be necessary. Remember that as the project manager, you need to take charge of informing your stakeholders if project scope begins to shift.

2. After Work Begins

So, you have done as much planning as you think you can bear, and work has begun on your project. Well, no matter how well executed your project planning phase was, inevitably one of your stakeholders will begin to wonder if extra deliverables should be added onto the original project scope. These may start out small ("Wouldn't it be neat if the app screen rained confetti after the user logs in?") but grow to be larger ("We should set dynamic rewards on the app that trigger users to log in more often! You know, to go with the on-screen confetti..")

As the project manager, it is your job to recognize scope creep before it becomes a problem, and to use your well thought out project plan to manage any incoming changes to your project.

2.1 Think about what else has to give. Always remember, if scope is expanding on your project, something else must always be traded for it. By adding scope, you must effectively communicate to your stakeholders that they will have to accept one or more of the following:

  • Increased budget
  • Increased timeline
  • Reduced quality of the final product

If your stakeholders are insisting that extra deliverables be added to your project scope without giving up any of the above items, they are setting entirely unrealistic expectations. You should not find this acceptable to your project. If you do, you run the risk of over-promising and under-delivering, not to mention burn out from your project team.

2.2 Avoid gold plating. Remember my example above of a team member adding confetti to the login screen? In this situation, let's assume that the customer did not ask for this to be added, but the developer had unexpected extra time in their sprint. Since it did not impact the project's established timeline, this should be fine, right?


This kind of thinking may seem harmless, or even as though you are empowering your project team to take initiative. The truth is, having a team member add features that the customer did not ask for is dangerous to the project and could lead down a slippery slope. It was perfectly fine for the developer to have this idea! However, they should verify that the customer needs this feature, and that there is nothing more pressing for them to be working on, before starting work. Otherwise, they are potentially jeopardizing the project timeline and quality.

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3. On Agile Projects

3.1 Conduct sprint reviews with your project team. Sprint reviews are done within your team and are all about the deliverables achieved during the last sprint. Sprint reviews will help your team track against the project plan and verify that the work has not strayed from the goals of the project.

3.2 Conduct demos with your stakeholders. Demos can be held on a regular basis with your stakeholders to demonstrate functionality as it is built. This is an excellent communication tool, used to verify with your stakeholders that your project team is building exactly what has been asked for.

3.3 Protect the team from adding work mid-sprint. In a formally defined, textbook agile project, this is the scrum master's job. Sometimes, in the real world the project manager inadvertently ends up being the informal scrum master. Regardless of whether you are doing this work yourself or just checking in with your team's scrum master, you should have measures in place to protect your team from being bombarded with extra work once the scope of a sprint has been defined.

4. Case Study

Here is a question: What if additional scope comes from something external to the company? For example, you are moving right along on implementing a new online system which makes it easier to purchase alcohol from a winery. You are almost complete with development, but then a law is unexpectedly passed in your state requiring all online alcohol purchases to be verified with facial recognition technology. What would you do?

If you answered in your head that you would collaborate with the team to understand the impact of this new law as it relates to your project, and then submit a change request if it is appropriate, you are exactly right! The possibility of new regulations affecting a project is very real, but external factors would trigger your change approval process in the same way that any other new scope item would. In this particular instance, it may be necessary to reevaluate the need for this project altogether. Your stakeholders may decide that the costs associated with introducing facial recognition technology are worth it to have an online ordering system, but they may also find the new requirements to be too expensive to implement.

Managing scope creep is the project manager's job.

Scope creep is an inevitable problem when working on complex projects, whether it be for an entrepreneurial start up or a well-established company. While scope creep may be associated with agile projects, it is a risk on any type of project. A construction project may have to deal with this problem if, for example, the client suddenly decides that they want to add a surprise rooftop garden area to the new corporate building that they have contracted.

Ultimately, remember that you are the voice of authority on your project, and you have the power to decide whether new scope warrants bringing to your change review board or not. Knowing when and where to execute this power will help you tremendously in controlling your project.

Regardless of the type of project you are managing, the ability to recognize scope creep before it becomes a problem will serve you well in your role! If you establish guidelines early and have a keen eye, you will effectively be able to manage the scope on your project and feel more confident that you are delivering the right value to your stakeholders.
About the Author: Madison Florian

Madison Florian is a content writer for EduMind, certified PMP and PMI-ACP. She received her BA in Economics from the University of Colorado and has experience as a project manager for a wide range of corporations, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. In her spare time, she enjoys reading novels by the fire, baking for her family and friends, and traveling to new places in her converted van

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