All is well. Your week's agenda is set—projects, deadlines, meetings and appointments, life outside of freelancing.
But then you get an email. In it, you find a variation of this dreaded sentence: “You know what would be great?” Your client thought of a tiny little thing they’d like you to add to their project. But that turns into two. Then an edit here. An edit there. And so on.
Suddenly your planned-out week isn’t as planned out as you thought. Also, since you’re (likely) not getting paid more for “small” changes, your work is less profitable because you’re taking more time. This can often happen while working as a freelancer. It’s called scope creep, and it can be one of the primary causes of project failure.
What Is Scope Creep?
Let’s break down the term “scope creep” and start with scope. Scope is the work that you’re expected to deliver, and it should be documented. The work agreement would include specific requirements, deadlines, and deliverables. If you’re putting together a 15-slide executive presentation for a client, for example, your scope could include:
- Requirements and specifications for the presentation
- Actual presentation file
- Delivery deadline
- Any accompanying notes or tools for your client
Scope creep, then, happens when that scope gradually creeps up. This occurs when your client adds on additional items, features, or requirements to previously agreed-upon projects without making necessary changes to project documentation, timeline, or financial compensation.
Types and Examples of Scope Creep
When we look at how to identify scope creep, it helps to understand the types of scope creep and how they happen. There are a few common forms scope creep can take.
Especially when you’re a creative freelancer, you expect your client to have some edits and changes to your first draft or mock-up because it’s all a matter of personal opinion. In some cases, though, clients go overboard and it ends up making the project far larger.
For example, perhaps you’re a writer who’s been hired to write a 1,000-word article. After your first draft, the client keeps asking you to include more and more topics so the finished article ends up closer to 2,000 words.
Sometimes scope creep ends up hurting you without really benefiting the client, and that happens when the client continuously throws curveballs and complications your way. Let’s say you’re a graphic designer and you’re hired for a logo design project. After you sign on, the client tells you they need you to use a specific type of design software you’ve never used. The project takes far longer because you’re trying to learn the new program while you design the logo.
Among all the types and examples of scope creep, this is the easiest one to spot. A client hires you to design a website with 20 pages, for example. Then they decide they want ten additional pages, they want the graphic on the homepage to be interactive, and they want a specialized plug-in that’s difficult to integrate, and you aren’t sure how to say no.
Causes of Scope Creep
There are plenty of possible causes of scope creep, and some of them are your client’s fault and some are not. Understanding where scope creep begins can help you end it before it gets out of hand.
Clients with the best of intentions sometimes have a hard time deciding what they want. In a case of extensive editing, they might have you make one change and then reverse it because they didn’t like the result. Sometimes your client is an entire team of people and each person has a different opinion of what they want. It’s not intentional but it makes your work more time-consuming.
Sometimes, as you dig into a project, problems arise that no one anticipated. It’s no one’s fault, just a result of the circumstances. For instance, as a freelance accountant, you may discover the company’s software has repeated glitches so you need to run reports multiple times or bring in the IT team to fix the problem.
It’s not as common, but there are times a client intentionally uses scope creep to get more work for less. They tell you they need a smaller project to start, and then they strategically add more requests and tasks expecting you to say yes without raising the price you quoted them.
5 Recommendations to Fight Scope Creep and Stay on Track
Scope creep is bad for freelancers doing projects, but it’s also bad for clients. It can easily lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, missed deadlines, or even overall project failure. This is why it’s important for freelancers to effectively fight scope creep and avoid falling into common mishaps. But how?
1. Identify Project Goals and Requirements and Put Them in Writing
Scope creep is something that tends to creep up on you late, hence the name. But you can take preventative action ahead of time so that you aren’t hit hard at the end.
Start with a contract and consider putting together a Statement of Work (SoW). An SoW is a document that defines all aspects and requirements of your project. It details the landscape of the project before you execute it. SoWs are a must for large projects, but if your projects are smaller, a light version is still highly recommended. Written documentation will help keep you aligned with your client long-term as your project progresses.
2. Consider Using an Estimate-Based Pricing Model
When you hire a construction contractor, they give you an estimate knowing that complications could arise and that this could change the price. Some freelancers choose this model as a way to deal with scope creep. You’ll provide your client with a detailed list of the services you’ll provide for the estimated price. At the end of the project, you invoice the client based on the work you actually completed.
If, for example, you’re tasked with putting together a B2B white paper and the final product could land anywhere between 20 and 30 pages, charge by word count or by page count so that if the project turns out longer than originally expected, you’re getting compensated fairly for the length and duration of work.
3. Create a Plan Ahead of Time for Scope Changes
It would be naïve to think that projects will always go as planned, even with those above steps put in place. In reality, projects are often molded and adjusted and tweaked and twisted throughout their lifecycles. Things change, and that’s okay. What’s important is to have change control processes in place. When a client is looking to make a change, it comes down to four components:
- Proposing the change: What needs to change? Why should it be implemented?
- Calculating the impact: Is there a financial impact? Will deadlines need to be pushed?
- Making the decision: Does it still make sense to make the change given the impact calculations?
- Signing off on the change: Are both parties content with the new plan of action?
Having this process established prior to starting a project will save both your client and yourself headaches as you work together.
4. Make Effective Communication a Priority
Another headache saver: communication. Communicating effectively is a majorly important skill in any industry, but particularly important with client relationships. Active listening, creating open avenues for questions, setting meetings when necessary, and asking for feedback are all vital pieces of effective communication that can help you ensure your projects are running smoothly and as planned.
5. Be Transparent
One reason scope creep can lead to project failure is that many of us have the habit of taking on a heavy workload and a desire to please our clients. Because we’re used to tight deadlines and juggling multiple projects, we brush off added scope and tell clients that we can still meet original deadlines. Often, we can. But working this way will inevitably lead to the unfortunate moment that a deadline is missed or it will lead to burnout.
Not meeting a deadline is a project failure—and it looks like a project failure on your end. Instead of risking this situation, be transparent about any added work scope and the importance of documenting changes, and build systems with your client that encourage transparency and set you up for success.
Keeping Scope Creep at Bay
A proactive approach to scope creep will save you money, save you time, and minimize the risk of project failure. Projects are living and breathing things—there’s always a chance that requirements will need to change. But make sure those changes don’t come out of your pocket. Making use of these five recommendations will help you keep scope under control and continue being a successful freelancer.
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