In this post we’re going to talk about tips for project scope creep management, so that you can put a stop to the sleep deprivation and poor profitability that will make you miserable if you don’t get your projects under control.

In my opinion, the first step to put an end, or at least minimize scope creep, is to understand why projects creep. Because when left unwatched, project scope always tends to increase. Always. And we need to understand the causes, so that we can implement the steps necessary to put an end them.  

Now. I've had to deal with my fair share of creeping projects, and I’ve identified mainly 5 sources behind scope creep.

Reasons for scope creep

The first driver of scope creep that I’ve identified, is different understandings regarding what was included in the scope of work to begin with.

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This one goes back to how the proposal was written. It lacked clarity, and client's expectations weren't properly managed before the project was sold.
In other words, what you sold and what the client bought are two different things. And the difference may be huge.

The second driver of scope creep that I’ve identified, is that ome clients forget what they agreed to.

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Sometimes you start off the project on the right foot. Everything you need from the client is received, all the decisions you need the client to make are made, and everything is going smoothly; you are in project heaven.

And then... the client is surprised with how the project is progressing, because he never agreed to that course of work. Wait. What?!? Yes you did…

I'm not going to debate around whether your client actually forgot or is acting in bad faith. Both can happen.

However, I am going to guess that doing your work twice wasn't included in the proposal. This isn’t acceptable.

Then, another scope creep cause, is that some clients are pushy.

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They just are. And this can happen for a multitude of reasons.
One, is that often clients will transfer to you the pressure they are under. They are afraid that you will fail. Keep in mind that:

  1. When clients invest in a project, they fear that it won't live up to their expectations. And your project may be a big deal for the client.
  2. If there are several people involved on the client's side, your project going wrong will reflect poorly on who decided to hire you. 

Nobody wants to be the idiot who hired the incompetent provider. You doing your job poorly will in turn reflect poorly on them. So, they want to make sure that you do your job properly, and turn into clientzilla in the process.

On a different note, it’s also quite common that clients don't fully understand the implications that their requests have. What they perceive to be a minor detail (just a minor tweak) can have major implications for the project. They don’t get this, so keep pushing for the “minor tweak” to be made.

And then, sometimes, there may be an additional issue: some people have no shame or regard for others. None at all. And sometimes, one of those people will be your client. Like… a client once threw a binder at me!

Whether they realize they are being pushy and can't help it because they are too stressed, are completely oblivious to the implications of their requests, or they’re raging psychopaths, pushy clients can turn your project into a creeping nightmare.

But let’s move on to another source of scope creep, which is that sometimes...

The client situation unexpectedly changes.

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Things change. Your client may be surprised by an event that changes the assumptions based on which you are building your work, and it no longer makes sense. Typical examples of this are caused by unexpected events such as new information available, competitor moves, new regulations, or even by client strategic decisions made after your project was purchased.

And then, sometimes projects creep just because...

You’re afraid of losing the client, and accept to do things that you should say “no” to.

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Because getting a foot in the door is hard enough, we don't want to risk losing a client, and possibly receiving negative reviews or being recommended against to all her contacts.

Therefore, to make sure we keep our clients happy, we want to over-deliver. We want our client to think that she made the best possible decision when she bought the project from us. Unfortunately, that can turn us into pushovers if we aren't careful. The line between being flexible and being a pushover is often too thin and hard to see from up-close.

And that’s it. Those are the broad reasons behind the scope creep situations I’ve seen myself dragged into.

So now that we’ve seen them, let’s see how to deal with them.

Tips for project creep management

These are my tips to handle scope creep depending on its cause, ok? So, we’ll follow the previous structure.

Dealing with different understandings regarding what was included in the scope of work

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When it comes to dealing with different understandings regarding what was included in the scope of work, it’s clear that this one has no easy solution once the project is ongoing. You can't go back in time to align expectations before you make the sale.

In my opinion, this is one of the toughest ones to solve.

Keep in mind that this is a frustrating situation for both of you. You will need to compromise, especially if you expect this client to bring in regular projects in the future, or to open doors to new business.

You can negotiate and compromise, but besides that you can do little more than kick yourself, vow to write clearer proposals in the future (watch my video on how to write a proposal if you’d like my suggestions), and try to show your client that what she expects to receive is not mentioned in the deliverables list. With some luck, you’ll reach an understanding that will allow you to cut your losses and keep the client.

Anyway, to avoid similar situations in the future, don't forget to include in the project proposal a list describing both:

  1. Deliverables. List exactly what the client will receive.
  2. What is out of scope, but which might be wrongly assumed by the client to be part of the deliverables. 

For me, typical issues in consulting revolved around project implementation and roll-out, client training and training materials, access to confidential data (this was a huge one; market research data, interviews and conversations that we have during the course of the project are all confidential, I cannot go around telling what was said by whom, or even who I talked to, but clients are curious, and can be pushy when it comes to this one), as well as work in areas that are closely related to the project subject, but that are not exactly the same.

Your projects probably have typical grey areas too, so be sure to list them all.

You need to look at the proposal from a client perspective, and try to anticipate what additional work might be expected. Every grey area that you identify must be added to either the deliverables list or the out of scope one.

Again, for more tips regarding proposal writing, take a look at the post about how to write a proposal for a project.

So let’s move on to dealing with the second source of scope creep:

Dealing with client forgetfulness regarding what was agreed 

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I must start by admitting that this one is a pet peeve of mine. I can't stand it when people keep going back to the same issue over, and over, and over again. And if you really want to push all my buttons, just tell me that you never said something that you did say. To my face. I generally have the patience of a saint, but if I ever end up in court mandated anger management classes, this will be the reason.  
So, how to deal with it? With minutes. With lots, and lots of minutes.
At some point I just started writing down every single decision, and every single agreement reached with clients. And sending my notes to them. I found this to be very helpful, since:

  • On one hand, it helps us all keep track of decisions and commitments.
  • And on the other, it avoids future arguments.

If you have read the video on how to stop wasting time with unproductive meetings, you already know my approach to writing minutes after a formal meeting. I do believe it is important to follow this approach after key meetings, such as the project kick-off or partial results delivery.

But I'm not suggesting you should go through a formal meeting minutes write-up after every single interaction with a client. That's not realistic. However, I do think there is still a need to write down every decision the client made, so:

  • When appropriate, follow brief meetings and/or calls with an e-mail containing a couple of bullet points summarizing decisions and next steps. I would do this after a straightforward touch base meeting. It helps the client keep track of the project on her side too, so she will be thankful for this.
  • If a call summary doesn't make sense (for example, you just picked up the phone to ask the client something), send an e-mail thanking them for their time and committing to implementing the decision that they made (which you will describe, of course).
  • If you talk to the client constantly obviously this approach isn't feasible, so summarize decisions in a periodic status update. Periodicity will depend on the length of the project and the implications of the decisions made. A weekly update always worked well for me, but my projects were always several months long, and I never talked to clients regarding big decisions on a daily basis. I just didn’t. You need to assess what makes sense for you.

But let’s now move on to dealing with the third source of scope creep:

Dealing with pushy clients

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If a client has never worked with you before, it's normal for her to be nervous. And that tends to make clients overzealous and pushy. So, you need to work to gain her trust. Show that you are in full control of the project. Show-off your expertise. And be patient, because it takes time to build trust.

Additionally, to avoid issues and pointless arguments down the line, keep track of all the additional work that you do, since:

  • A: You may need to refuse to implement out of scope requests. In that case, you want to be able to show the client that you are flexible and willing to go the extra mile. But that you do need to draw a line somewhere, and, showing a list of concessions you did make makes this easier to explain.
  • And B: The client that is supper happy to see you being flexible now, may later criticize you for project delays. They just forget that they preferred you to be flexible when it was more convenient for them. 

So, if a client requests a major change:

  1. Remind the client of the reason why that wasn't the initial approach. She must have had a reason to choose differently in the first place. Sometimes people just forget stuff.
  2. Show her implications: what parts will have to be discarded and redone, how timeline will be affected, which investments won't be recovered... etc.
  3. If the change has a significant impact on project cost, put your foot down and ask for the client to pay for it. (This should be foreseen in the proposal too).

Lastly, remember that some clients will never be happy. The more you give, the more they'll ask. It's tough, but you need to accept that some clients won't be happy. It isn't personal, no other competitor would succeed either; the issue is the client, not you.

When thinking back about the most difficult clients I've had to deal with, I've reached the conclusion that they seem to fit into 4 groups:

  1. The stressed-out client.
  2. The "let's see if request sticks" client.
  3. The oblivious to the request implications client, and
  4. The regardless idiot.

You can find more details about these nasty clients in the post about how to work with pushy clients.
For now let’s move on to...

Dealing with unexpected changes and situations

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Sometimes unexpected events have a serious impact on your project. You may be working on designing new processes and the client company is sold. Happened to me.

Or you may be working on a product launch and the company decides to kill the product or needs to significantly alter it. Also happened to me. Several times, actually.

Or a client's competitor makes a move that alters your project's assumptions (if you’re in an innovative industry, this happens all the time).

Or ______ fill in the blank. Unexpected things happen all the time.

While in some situations the outcome is clear (if you were working on a product that no longer exists there's no need for the project), in others, the client may expect you to adapt to the new circumstances.

If the project is cancelled, you need to negotiate which part of the payment you will receive based on the work you already performed.

However, if the situation changes but the project still makes sense, it will need to be adapted.

If we're talking about content updates, I would offer to make small adaptations for free to show flexibility and willingness to help.

However, if changes are significant or constant, a line must be drawn somewhere. Tell the client you can no longer keep making updates free of charge, since you didn't include the necessary hours in the proposal price. Follow the steps for pushy clients mentioned above.

And then, if the update entails significant changes to entire workflows, then the project scope needs to be renegotiated. Explain the implications for the project, and offer a new solution considering the new problem or the new context, and the project budget that is still available (unless the client is willing to invest more, of course).

Which leads us to our last source of scope creep to deal with: 

Dealing with the fear of losing the client

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We want to please, but we must know when to say no. So, do show flexibility and willingness to cooperate, but keep in mind that overdoing it will jeopardize project delivery on time and on budget.

It's hard not to be scared and tempted to give in when the client threatens to hire someone else next time, I know, but remember that building trust is tough. And you are already working on it.

If the client knows she can rely on you at the end of the day, she may not want to swap you for the first alternative that comes by, regardless of what she says when you don't satisfy her every request. She may even be fully aware that others wouldn't agree to satisfy her requests either, and is just bluffing (the regardless idiot type of client does this a lot).

Anyway, remember that often some tension may develop during project execution that completely evaporates once the client sees her problems solved by the end-result. And she will come back, even if you didn't satisfy her every single request. Because what you did do, turned out great, and the end result is amazing, despite all the frictions that you had during the project, and which at this point will be forgotten.

And if she doesn't come back... well, at least you didn't lose money on this one. If the client doesn't understand that you must make a living now, she won't understand it going forward either.

And basically, those are my tips for avoiding and managing scope creep. I hope they were useful, and let me know if you have additional ideas. I’m always looking for new tips (besides… I’m probably forgetting something, I’m sure).

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