Scope creep: How do you avoid it?

Keep customers happy and get paid for your work.

Have you ever been involved in a project that seems as though it will never end? You know: THAT project. 

The one scheduled for completion three weeks ago, but somehow you’re still doing work... You’re probably experiencing a case of scope creep. 

It happens more often than you would think, and it happens to the best project managers out there. 

It usually stems from wanting to keep your customer happy; after all, who likes to say “no” when success is on the line?

Yet, you should. 

Because one “yes” to a request for additional work not covered in your project scope might be enough to severely cut your profits if you haven’t had time to evaluate all the steps. (Your customers know you charge a fair rate for your services and they want to see you stay in business.) You may also soon find yourself accepting multiple requests from the same customer because one new task logically leads to another...

So, how do you avoid scope creep? 

We’ve got six tips to help you protect your bottom line while keeping your customers happy:

1) What has your customer asked you to do?

Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes

Knowing your customer’s vision – which really means understanding the business challenge your customers is trying to solve – is the first step to managing scope creep.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but if you don’t know what you're trying to accomplish from the outset, you’re already in the danger zone. When you leave your overlying goal and key milestones too broad, you’re leaving room for heaps of unplanned work.

Instead of working to a goal like: “Ensure all customers are happy with our service”, set a goal such as: “Increase online sales by 20% in 2017”. Then look at specific and measurable ways to support that activity. For example:

  • Redesign the company website and optimise the content for SEO.
  • Begin a six month content outreach programme with the company's business partners.
  • Purchase digital ads (valued at a specific amount) to promote the business online.

Plan resources the way you would if you were down to your last dollars

You need to find your project’s “edges”. And you need to be as keen about this process as you would be if you were trying to make a weekly budget for your last $20 bucks.

You know the drill. Get detailed answers to the following questions, as well as any others you think of that will help with this step:

  • Where does your job start, and where does it end? 
  • What resources will you need to complete the project?
  • What support will be needed from your customer?
  • What are the key milestones that will let your team and your customer know that the project is progressing successfully? 
  • Who is responsible for negotiating with the customer? And who is in charge of approving customer requests for the project?
  • Are there any risks that would stall or compromise the project?

Planning resources well means you have extra funds in the entertainment kitty to shout the crew and your customer for their great work. Create the means to celebrate success!

2) Brainstorm with your team, not with your customer

Some of the best advice you’ll get on how to handle scope creep is keeping brilliant ideas “hush, hush” until your team has finished brainstorming ways to solve your customer’s business challenge.

While it’s oh so tempting to share ideas during a customer meeting as soon as they pop into your mind, quietly jot them down instead.

Your initial meetings should be all about your customer. Define their problem, find out what they think in regards to an ideal solution. Go ahead and make an effort to find out more about them; establish a bit of rapport.

Whatever you do, avoid discussing cool ideas you’ve had that might get your customer dreaming big. Why, you ask?

Here’s two difficult scenarios you may find yourself in:

  • The “runaway train”

    The more you talk about your ideas, the harder it is to keep control of the meeting and the project.

    There’s too many variables on the board that sound good, distracting everyone from the overlying meeting and project goals. It will take more time and followups to form a solid plan after the meeting. Now, you’re in for a ride!

  • The “love at first pitch”

    Your customer may genuinely fall in love with something you’ve said and expect you to follow through.

    However, you might find that shaping your idea into reality is above and beyond what the project needs or what your customer is willing to spend on a total solution. Now you have to talk your customer out of what you said... Or worse, you’re committed whether you like it or not. 

Don’t over commit or leave yourself breaking hearts. Keep your thoughts under lock and key until you're ready to pitch the total solution you’re offering your customer! Being a good listener paves the way for project success.

3) Discuss the solution with your customer

Don’t build your customer an interstellar satellite if they need a simple solution. How do you know when you’ve gone too far or not far enough? Let your customer tell you what they think.

It’s always good to be on the same page. Before you start implementing anything, discuss optional project elements and get feedback on the plan.

During this customer catch up, you’ll want to confirm the following:

  • Does the solution fit the customer’s needs? Everyone should agree with the desired outcomes.
  • Will it work their existing systems? Are there additional resources the customer will need to provide?
  • Will the total solution suit their budget? 
  • Is there something that hasn’t quite been addressed to the customers liking? Or is there something the customer forgot to mention during your initial meetings that’s only coming up now?

This is the time to clarify any misunderstandings so you can add or remove work from the project scope to meet your customer's needs and budget.

4) Put your agreement in writing

All the work you’ve done to this point will pay dividends if you backup your process with a written agreement or project plan, based off your original cocktail serviette with scribbles no one can quite read.

This is an exciting time as you’re laying strong foundations for working with your customer, so make your written plan just as energetic as your customer communications up to this point.

Once the project scope is mapped out in black and white, it should be clear as to where the project begins and ends. Your role should be clear and your customer’s role in the project should be well-defined.

Lastly, you and your customer will have agreed to the final costs around the project within your plan. So if you’ve priced your services correctly from the start, you’ll be turning a profit without project scope crepe rearing it’s ugly head.

5) Create a process for making changes to project scope

Keep watch for changes as soon as the project is underway.

If any customer request appears to be above and beyond what you’ve outlined in your work plan, it’s time to have a catch up with your customer to determine why they’ve made the request.

If the change is reasonable or an oversight, you should be able to add the work to the project in a fair manner.

Additional work requests should be reviewed and approved by one person – that person will also need to work out additional costs for the work and prepare an estimate for the customer.

Get all project amendments approved in writing.

6) Say “no” when requests are unreasonable

There will be times when a request is unreasonable. Now that you’ve got a great system in place, backed by strong foundations, identifying when to say “no” should be less agonising.

Always say ”no” if work requested falls completely outside the agreement you have in place or it would consume too much of the revenue you expected to gain from completing the project.

In cases where a customer is very keen, negotiate:

  • If your customer is adamant about adding something new to the project, ask them to give up something else. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the bottom line as the reason for this negotiation.

  • Scope out the additional work and inform your customer of the additional charges to cover elements not provided for in your original agreement. (You’re upgraded serviette is already proving useful!) If they’re happy to invest more, you can do more.

  • Track all work requests not included in the scope of the current project and discuss these tasks as a “Phase II” or second project with your customer. Once you’ve finished the current project, you’ll need to follow the same scope creep prevention steps to manage the next phase. A phased approach often works well as it allows you and your customer the chance to celebrate all the work you have completed together so far.

At the end of the day, you work hard to help your business move forward with achieving its goals. We encourage you to please your customers and make them feel appreciated – just don’t do it at your expense.

If you need help with writing for online audiences to complete your next project, feel free to get in touch.


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