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Scope Creep - Everything You Need to Know

May 10, 2023
(updated: May 8, 2023)
Max 5 min read

So you get an email from your client. In it, you find a variation of this dreaded sentence: "You know what would be great?" Your client thought of something they'd like you to add to their project. But that turns into two edits. Then an edit here. An edit there. And so on. Suddenly your planned-out week is different than 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.

At some point in a freelance career, this has already happened or is sure to happen at some point soon. We call this "scope creep." It’s been the death of many a good project. What exactly is scope creep and what causes it? In this article we'll discuss that and show you how Indy can help you avoid it.

What is Scope Creep?

Let's break down the term "scope creep" and start with scope. It is the work you're expected to deliver and should be documented. By "it should be documented," we mean presenting the material and plans to the project manager, client, key stockholders, and anyone involved.

Alright, so back to understanding scope creep. Scope creep is the overall creep in project management over the project timeline. These change requests can sometimes be simple but often be quite intense changes to the overall project plan.

When working with clients, it happens so often that they randomly decide on a million different options from the originally presented scope. Sometimes, these unnecessary features are requested and can be allowed due to a possible negative impact on the relationship with key stakeholders.

In essence, scope creep is the change in the project's scope. The scope was the original presented materials agreed upon between the project team and the key stakeholders. From the time the project starts to the time the project comes to an end, scope creep can happen at any moment.

Real-Life Examples of Scope Creep

Below are real-life examples of scope creep and the drastic effects it can have

  • The Denver International Airport’s automated baggage-handling system, which was completed 16 months behind schedule and $569 million over budget due to ignoring key stakeholders and adding unnecessary features
  • The Sydney Opera House was finished 10 years late and 1,400% over budget due to changing designs, political interference, and technical challenges.
  • The Airbus A380 program was delayed by two years and cost $6 billion more than planned due to wiring problems, customization requests, and poor communication.
  • Boston's "Big Dig" construction project, which was completed nine years late and $11 billion over budget due to poor planning, design changes, environmental issues, and legal disputes
  • The Chrysler PT Cruiser faced a huge demand but a low supply due to failing to consider dealer showroom delivery ins into the project scope.

All the examples mentioned above share some common problems and issues that resulted in scope creep. Here are some of them:

Poor planning and management

Most of these projects suffered due to poor planning and management. Proper planning can lead to clarity, delays, and cost overruns. In addition, adequate management can lead to better communication, missed deadlines, and unaddressed issues.

Changing requirements

Many of these projects faced changes in requirements, leading to increased costs and delays. Freelancers must ensure that they clearly understand the client's needs and requirements and establish a robust change management process.

Technical challenges

Technical challenges are common in any project, and they can lead to delays and increased costs. Freelancers must clearly understand the project's technical requirements and the necessary skills to address technical issues.

Stakeholder management

Many of these projects suffered due to ignoring key stakeholders. Freelancers must communicate effectively with all stakeholders and promptly address their concerns.

Freelancers must ensure that they have a clear understanding of the project requirements, establish a robust change management process, have the necessary technical skills, manage the project scope, and communicate effectively with all stakeholders to avoid the problems faced by the projects mentioned above.

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. Knowing and understanding the different forms of scope creep will help project managers get a quick grasp and respond quickly without causing too much commotion with the overall project work. Here are the top three most common forms of scope creep: 

Extensive editing

Coming from the view of a creative freelancer, it's quite common and expected that your client will have some edits and changes to your first draft or mock-up. Mostly because it's all a matter of personal opinion; unfortunately, some clients tend to go overboard with project changes, and the entire project becomes more drawn out and large. 

For example, you're a writer 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.

This change request could raise issues with delivery time, creating a clear vision and a price way over the cost baseline originally discussed. 

Added complications

Sometimes scope creep hurts you without benefiting the client, which happens when the client continuously throws curveballs and complications your way. Added complications are rarely necessary and often happen because of poor communication.

Unfortunately, the communication gap is real in the modern age of computer-based chatting. Staying in video chats with clients is often important, especially when dealing with change requests.

An example of added complications would be something along the lines of this: 

You're a graphic designer 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. 

These real-world examples help to put everything into perspective. Learning new software features you probably have not heard of is undoubtedly extremely frustrating. It may be a difficult conversation, but it's important to relay that the software you use will ultimately give the best timeline and product. 

Increased deliverables

This is the easiest to spot among all the types and examples of scope creep. This is when the client continuously adds new features to the whole project. It's always challenging to complete a project only to have it sent back and attached with many extra features. 

For example, a client hires you to design a website with 20 pages. Then they decide they want ten additional pages, the graphic on the homepage to be interactive, and a specialized plug-in that's difficult to integrate and you need to investigate it.

Again, it may be a difficult conversation, but it's essential. If the client needs help understanding that they must stick to what was originally agreed upon, it's important to discuss a new project schedule. This schedule can represent the new project deliverables or extra features the client asks for. 

Causes of Scope Creep

There are plenty of possible causes of scope creep, some of which are your client's fault, and some are not. Understanding where scope creep begins can help you end it before it causes a problem. Here are a few causes of scope creep that are vital to understand.

Clients with the best intentions sometimes need help deciding what they want. In the 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.

This is where the original project scope and roles need to be detailed and understood by everyone in project management. 

Technical complications

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 must run reports multiple times or bring in the IT team to fix the problem.

Technical problems happen more often than we'd like to admit. Unfortunately, it's not something that can be avoided in most cases. But it can affect the project, worsening the project scope creep. In this case, it may have nothing to do with the client and can often make for an even more difficult conversation. 

Intentional deception

It's less common, but sometimes 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.

Unfortunately, this is something that you may run into at some point in your freelance career. This can be frustrating and, honestly, just upsetting. Taking the steps to avoid getting to this point is essential. It will help to avoid scope creep and to get the most out of your work, billable hours, or projects.

Lack of proper preparedness

Once upon a time, Ezra Taft Benson shared his wisdom by stating, "It is better to prepare and prevent than it is to repair and repent." Even though it was said in a setting that had nothing to do with project management, the adage is nevertheless considered one of life's fundamental truths. 

Although going into a project overprepared could be counterproductive. Underpreparation with the plan to just 'wing it' is just irresponsible.

Before getting started on the project, the management needs to have a complete comprehension of the following:

  • The goals of the project
  • The expectations and motivations of the stakeholders
  • The duties of the team
  • Deadlines and timetables
  • Everyone's deliverables 

When the project's scope is only outlined in broad vague terms, or the client's vision is only known in a generic sense, there will always be surprises and significant adjustments further down the road.

You need to understand the project well to execute it, and you might also need to pay more attention to its scope. 

The ability of the project manager to precisely predict the amount of money needed to accomplish the project and the amount of time required to do so is critical to the project's success. 

Late feedback 

Any feedback is always appreciated. And in situations that call for user feedback, one of the most basic errors that may be made is to skip including users in the early stages of project development. 

In many cases, the receipt of late input results in the realization that the project is flawed in some fundamental way or that an essential component of the product has been neglected, both of which eventually lead to an expansion of the project's scope.

When you involve end users from the beginning of the process, you eliminate the possibility of discovering crucial information too late to prevent scope creep.

Excessive stakeholder involvement

Excessive stakeholder involvement is likely one of the top factors contributing to scope creep. When coupled with poor management, it becomes very disastrous.

It is not unusual to run upon stakeholders who fancy themselves to be managers. 

When many different stakeholders promote their competing agendas, it can be impossible to find a common ground when so many people have a say in how the project should end. This inevitably leads to conflicts and modifications in its scope.

One strategy for lowering the likelihood of this occurring is to bring the number of critical stakeholders down to as few as possible. 

If this is not an option, consider the following:

  • Before the start of the project, schedule several in-depth brainstorming sessions with everyone involved

  • Draw out a detailed plan to better understand everyone's objectives and drivers

Poor managerial skills

A strong leader is essential for a project manager because they are responsible for maintaining order and controlling everything. 

This is relevant for:

  • Managing teams

  • Managing tasks

  • Managing schedules

  • Dealing with customers 

  • Having conversations with other important stakeholders

Putting on a show of vulnerability and inexperience can put you in the position of having unreasonable demands piled on top of you. This can also result in taking on more duties beyond the scope of what the team is competent to manage. 

An effective leader has a firm grasp of the project's priorities and the ability to politely decline requests, particularly when it appears that arbitrary demands are supplanting one's priorities.

Ineffective communication

The project manager acts as the primary mediator between the client, any other key stakeholders, and the project teams. A competent project manager should be able to communicate effectively in both directions with all of the important parties involved in the project. 

From the beginning of a project, it is the project manager's responsibility to effectively communicate the project's needs to the rest of the team. 

Once a project is well underway, it is common to find key stakeholders who are utterly oblivious to what is happening on a given project since they are busy with the tasks they are responsible for.

The project manager's role is to keep all of the major stakeholders informed on the project's status and any potential problems or changes that might occur. It's all part of the job description to subtly nudge employees toward periodic report meetings or sign offs.

If there is a breakdown in communication at any point during the project, the scope may expand.

However, one thing that needs to be avoided at all costs is enabling unfettered communication between the project team and the stakeholders. This could allow stakeholders to circumvent official protocols and propose modifications directly to the team, which could result in changes being made without authorization.

How Indy Helps with Scope Creep

Indy is a platform that provides project management tools and resources for freelancers. One of the ways it can help freelancers with scope creep is by providing them with tools to manage project requirements effectively.

  • For example, Indy offers a project scope template that freelancers can use to document the project's scope, deliverables, and timelines. This template can help freelancers establish clear project boundaries and prevent scope creep.

  • Indy also has project management tools for managing project changes. Freelancers can use these tools to track changes in project requirements, document the impact of these changes on the project scope, and communicate these changes to the client. By having a structured approach to managing changes, freelancers can avoid scope creep and ensure the project stays on track.

  • Our built-in chat feature allows for effective communication with clients. Clear communication is critical in preventing scope creep. By using the platform's communication tools, freelancers can ensure that they understand the client's requirements and expectations and can communicate any changes or issues effectively.

In summary, Indy can help freelancers prevent scope creep by providing project management tools and resources for managing project requirements, changes, and client communication. Sign-up now and try it for yourself.


Scope creep is something that almost every freelancer will ultimately run into at some point. Whether you realize it or not, scope creep is all around. There are a variety of different aspects that cause scope creep. Unfortunately, it can happen quickly and affect the overall project substantially.

Bring your projects and clients onto Indy’s platform. When your contracts, tasks, and comms are all in one place, you will be in a great position to manage scope creep more effectively. Sign-up to Indy today to see how we can help you!

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