5 Steps to Prevent Scope Creep On Your Projects

By Jason Swenk on January 21, 2014

I want to share with you the “pain killers” of scope creep

When I say SCOPE CREEP, I bet most of you conjure up images of clients sneaking in to take advantage of you. But scope creep really starts off as more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Most agencies and freelancers have experienced this monster.

Scope creep is when a project grows beyond its anticipated size.

Scope creep starts like this – You start working with a new client and the project is going well. Then the client asks for one small change. You think nothing of it, since it will only be one small change. Then the client comes back with another request and then another. You agree to these changes to keep the client happy and avoid confrontation.  The project continues to grow in size and the client is assuming the project will be delivered in the specified timeline and budget.  Sound familiar? I hope not, but if this does… You’re losing money!

Fortunately, there are a number of strategies you can follow to keep the monster from derailing your profits.

Step #1 – Scope creep control starts on day one by asking the right questions.

  • What does the client define as a successful project?
  • What are the biggest challenges of making the project successful for you and the client?
  • What are the expected timelines, and are there any crucial things you should be aware of?
  • What is the budget, and does this work for you?
  • Is this a project that can be successful?

Step # 2 – Follow your processes and checklists.

Have you ever seen all the buttons and switched an airline pilot has to go through to fly a plane? What is the first thing they do before they take off? They go through a series of checklists and processes. It doesn’t matter if they have logged thousands of hours or not, they go through the same flight check process every time, which creates a routine. This is the same routine you need in your business. If your project manager got hit by a bus tomorrow, would the next team member be able to take over where they left off?

Here are some suggested checklists and processes:

  • Bringing on a new client
  • Starting a project
  • Creative process
  • Development process
  • Internal testing
  • Launch sequences

Side note: If you would like to see these Checklist documents, I will share them with you here…

Step # 3 – Document everything.

It all starts with having a detailed proposal with all of the deliverables clearly laid out and the project timeline for each. Many times when a client would ask for something way off grid, I could go back to the detailed proposal they signed and avoid scope creep.

The most important thing we did was have the client sign off on every major milestone from the creative brief, wireframes, concepts, website design, and launch of the work. We communicated the creative process to the client in the beginning and then when we reached each milestone, the client signed off.

Here’s an example of our website creative process:

  1. Client signs off on the mission plan document.  The mission plan outlines the finalized site map, call to actions, objectives, final timelines, etc.
  2. Client signs off on the wireframes.
  3. Client signs off on the detailed concepts, which defines how the website works.
  4. Client signs off on the one round of site edits.
  5. Client signs off on the project.

At the end of the website project, we have a total of 5 client sign offs, not including the proposal / contract itself.  Once we started doing this, we went from losing money on out-of-control projects to making 30% margins.

Side note: If you would like to see these Sign Off documents, I will share them with you here…

Step # 4 – Tracking the project.

Before I started tracking my projects, I was losing money on 60% of the projects. I was lucky I was making up the difference with the other 40%. I was losing money because I didn’t track how much time we were spending and comparing that to the estimated hours. Not only did this hurt me on the current project, it prevented me from being able to accurately judge similar projects in the future. Track all your hours and make sure you do a debrief on all projects to see if you made a profit. Understanding why will allow you to apply that knowledge to future projects. There are many softwares that help with this. Basecamp is a popular one, but I prefer MyIntervals.

Step #5 – Expect scope creep

I would be lying if I said I always conquered scope creep. But if you expect it and you have a solution for it, you can dramatically reduce the effects. One way to do this is factor some scope creep into the proposal, so you don’t hurt profits. A great thing that I did was, always document every change with a Change Order. It didn’t matter if it was $5 or $100,000, I had a one page document that the client signed. One thing that hardly anybody does, is a Change Order Form for $0, and make the client sign it. By doing this, it lets the client know that their request was outside the scope. Then they are more reluctant to ask for many more changes. It’s kind of a head game, but it worked.

Side note: If you would like to see what my Change Order Form looked like, I will share it with you here… 

In conclusion, the process for avoiding scope creep and keeping your clients happy is as follows:

  • Understand the client’s objectives.
  • Collaborate with the client.
  • Define a detailed scope of works.
  • Price the solution in a manner that assumes some scope creep.
  • Get everything in writing.

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