scope creep

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.

At some point in a freelance career, this has already happened or is sure to happen at some point soon. In the Freelancing world, this is referred to as “scope creep.” Project requirements are overall completely up to the client, which, all in all, makes scope creep that much more inevitable.

Thankfully, there are various ways to mitigate scope creep. Which, most likely is why you've made it to this article. So, sit back, take a minute, and really absorb all of the tips and tricks throughout this article in hopes of preventing scope creep in the future.

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. By "it should be documented,” we mean presenting the material and plans to the project manager, client, key stockholders, and really anyone that's involved with the project.

This agreement should 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

Alright, so back to understanding scope creep. Scope creep is basically the overall creep in project management over the project timeline. These change requests can sometimes be simple but can oftentimes 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 original scope that was presented. Sometimes, these unnecessary features are requested and can't be denied due to a possible negative impact on the relationship with key stakeholders.

In essence, scope creep is the change of the project's scope. The scope was the original presented materials that were 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.

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 to get a quick grasp and be able to respond quickly without causing too much commotion with the overall project work. Here are the top three most common forms of scope creep: 

1. 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, though, some clients tend to go overboard with project changes, and the entire project becomes more drawn out and large. 

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.

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

scope

2. Added complications

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. Added complications are almost never necessary and often happen because of poor communication.

Unfortunately, in the modern age of computer-based chatting, the communication gap is real. It’s often important to stick to video chats with clients, 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. It’s no doubt extremely frustrating to learn new features of the software that you’ve probably never even heard of. It may be a difficult conversation, but it’s important to relay that the software you’re used to will ultimately give the best timeline and product. 

3. Increased deliverables

Among all the types and examples of scope creep, this is the easiest one to spot. This is when the client continuously adds more new features to the whole project. It’s never easy to complete a project, only to have it sent back and attached with a ton of extra features. 

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.

Again, it may be a difficult conversation, but it’s essential. If the client can’t understand that they must stick to what was originally agreed upon, then it’s important to talk about a new project schedule. This schedule can be represented, and hold the new project deliverables or extra features asked of the client. 

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. Here are a few causes of scope creep that are vital to understanding.

Indecisiveness

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.

This is where the original project scope needs 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 need to 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 just not something that can be avoided in most cases. But it can have a significant effect on the project, all in all, enhancing 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 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.

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 working, billable hours, or projects.

5 recommendations to fight scope creep and stay on track

Not only is scope creep harmful to the freelancers completing the projects, but it’s equally harmful to the clients. It can easily lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, missed deadlines, or even overall project failure.

Essentially this is why it's important for freelancers to effectively fight scope creep and avoid falling into common mishaps. But how can that be done? To be honest, once you understand and recognize scope creep, it’s much easier to avoid. Along with recognizing and understanding it, there are some additional techniques to addressing scope creep: 

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. Good project managers will intensely understand their SoW before beginning to work on the project. Make sure that everyone in the entire project team is on the same page.

document

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.

This is probably one of the best ways to avoid scope creep, especially for smaller projects. This is a way to ensure that even if the client requests more work, you’re getting everything that your project is worth. Providing a detailed work breakdown structure before beginning the project and after is vital for this technique to work properly, smoothly, and effectively. 

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, adjusted, tweaked, and twisted throughout their life cycles. Things change, and that's okay. As a matter of fact, it’s expected! What's important is to have a change control process 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. These processes are a great way to avoid any poor communication issues that you may run into along the way. Knowing how to send approved change requests to the freelancer makes the client much more at ease and can help to avoid any unwanted additional features. 

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.

There’s absolutely nothing worse than poor communication. Communication is key in almost any realm of life, and that doesn’t change when managing scope creep. Scope creep occurs when we least expect it but can be easily curved when the communication between client and freelancer is simple and strong.

It’s important to take pride in your communication skills and spread them in order to avoid one of the most common causes of scope creep. 

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 the 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. Build systems with your client that encourage transparency and set you up for success.

Missing a deadline has the potential to destroy all respect that a client has for you and your business. This is 100% not worth it. There’s no direct science as to why it seems like the most important thing is to prove that we can do it all. When in reality, we can’t, no one can. There is a substantial number of freelancers who genuinely put hours and hours into a project that should have only taken one. Only to say, “eh, it was no big deal!”. When, in fact, it was a very big deal. 

This stems right back to having a space for positive communication. Working with stakeholders and clients to genuinely understand who you are and how much pride you have in your work will outweigh missing a deadline.

In most cases, stakeholders understand that new requests are going to take time to process. A change request is a request, and keeping everyone up to date on the timeline, will help you to create a better project in general. So, remember taking pride in your work outweighs the idea of finishing the work quickly. 


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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. Making sure those changes don't come out of your pocket or affect your overall business is essential to crafting, running, and getting positive reviews from clients.

It’s vital to keep scope creep under control. Not only any control, your control. Your total control. Working with project stakeholders to build positive relationships and easy communication is one of the best and most important parts of keeping scope at bay.

Of course, all of the other five aforementioned points are also important, but none can be put into action without the foundation of strong communication skills. 

Conclusion

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.

One of the most important and efficient ways to avoid scope creep in project development is to understand it. The overall understanding of what it is will help you to handle scope creep because you can see it before it happens. 

In any part of life, expecting it to happen can help to avoid so many tragedies. If you see a ball rolling across the road, it's only natural to expect a child to run after it. So you slow down and watch for the child.

When it comes to project scope creep, it works almost the same. When a client presents you with a 1,000-word writing project on an extremely vague topic, you can almost expect that it's going to go over 1,000 words. In this case, you should charge by the word and not the article.

Maya Angelou said it best: “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” Living with that motto will make your freelancing career both more successful and less influenced by project scope creep.