January 12, 2022

How to Manage Scope Creep

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In the A/E/C industry, being able to plan for the unexpected minimizes risk and creates successful projects. Project managers, engineers, and architects are trained to anticipate unforeseen events and handle them accordingly. However, scope creep can be difficult to handle for even seasoned professionals. Our expert, Ed Rafter, P.E., Senior Associate in the Mission Critical Market offers a few tips and tricks on how best to be prepared for when this event arises.

First, lets define what scope creep is.


Scope Creep is an unplanned and unwelcomed event or task, that is not in the original project scope document – which is generally a project overview, defining the list of equipment and activities needed for a project’s success to occur on-time and within budget. These unplanned events are not included in adjustments to time, budget, or resources allocated for the scope of work. It often can occur without any assessment and formal approval process.

The impacts of scope creep can include:

Devoting time and resources to handle unapproved changes intended for the agreed upon project scope.
Reducing the allotted time and resources intended for the approved project scope.
Missed deadlines, project delays, overworked team, and/or over-budget situations.
The finished deliverable is not according to the project scope.
Disheartened project team members, disappointed project supporters, and possibly an upset client.

In all projects there are changes, generally minimal, and a contractor will normally allow a reasonable contingency in their pricing. However, clarity on the scope must be stated in the project documents and each stakeholder must clearly understands what is in the scope. Any exceptions for even minimal changes, if continued, will add up and can result in a significant impact to the project.

Contrary to what I have repeatedly heard over the years, the sources for scope creep can be both internal, as well as external.

Those external sources can include:

Equipment suppliers– should clearly communicate changes in equipment specifications, support, and schedules when they occur. Knowing project dependencies is essential for all stakeholders.

This reality is prevalent with today’s supply chain issues, for a variety of products across all areas, from manufacturer to customer, from the industrial to the retail markets. Many projects are being severely impacted and deliverables and schedules are faced with extended lead times of weeks or even months. Construction dependencies are forcing schedule change, which in turn, affects the client/customer.

Stakeholders– both external and internal, those who have a special interest in the project and seek to influence changes or additions. They might suggest the benefit of additional function or seek equipment demonstrations that can affect the cost and schedule. Project managers should quickly highlight the impact to the project for all such ‘recommendations’.

Internal sources can include:

Users– feedback from users is extremely helpful to the ultimate goals of the project. Such feedback should be evaluated, and in the case of multiple comments or requests, prioritized by the project leaders, including the contractor and the client/customer, both typically being project managers in their organization.

End users can often be extremely anxious when there are changes to the schedule and will often voice concern in not being able to meet their commitments. The pressure placed on the project manager and project team can be significant. It’s a long-standing contest between the various groups and the production side of the business.

Project Manager– can also be a source for scope creep when they are challenged to deliver as proposed, in time and within budget. They may choose to seek work arounds or fast-track solutions to the issues.

Team Members– team members may unintentionally trigger scope creep. Born from an eagerness to help, they may offer solutions or recommendations without appreciating the impact to the project. Such efforts should be considered with respect to the larger scope and agreed to before broached with individual participants.

My own experience in this situation has become a personal reminder to consider the situation when faced with clients’ request for services not in scope.  In my desire to maintain client satisfaction, I would offer services to help with their need, assuming at the time, the additional effort and time would be compensated. However, too frequently this proved not to be the case. A lesson I learned from these experiences is to have transparent discussions at the outset of the project to insure these additions are included in the scope and captured within the budget.

Causes for scope creep include:

Lack of clear scope description – the absence of a clearly stated scope description can be interpreted  differently by team members.

Lack of scope administration – recognizing the project requirement can grow as it progresses demands notifying key financial and decision makers as soon as possible. Time to review and approve is essential before they become a source for scope creep.

Scope drift – can occur when facing several key decisions. The time to organize all the required information should be provided to the project team so essential stakeholders have all the facts before reaching a decision. These key facts need to be measurable, and clearly and concisely stated, otherwise the scope can drift into an inclusion of elements that are non-essential to project success.

Lack of essential stakeholders – when key decision makers are unavailable to devote time to the project, other members or external partners may step up to fill the void. These others may not have the larger view, the correct information, or the authority, as an essential stakeholder.

Project duration – simply stated, the longer the project duration, the greater the chance for scope creep.

Managing scope creep depends on having clearly stated document requirements and schedule. Implementing a change control process to address items that surface and lead to scope creep will benefit all team members. The change control process should include:

Monitoring the project’s status and continually comparing to the project scope statement.
Identifying the cause and the extent of changes from scope creep.
Establishing a change management process to handle change requests, project impact assessment, and recommendations or approvals.
Regular communications, substantiation, and reporting to essential stakeholders.

Overcoming Scope Creep

The Right Project Manager and Project Team – engage the best project manager and project team. Nothing will kill a project faster than poor management.

Clear Communication– is the basis to eliminating scope creep.

Collaboration– with clients regularly and have items approved by them.

Effective Change Management– to the original scope or work is essential to controlling projects.

Overcoming scope creep requires accepting that it can and does happen. Effective change management, regular communication, and collaboration with clients, continuously learning, and restating key information will resolve many of your scope creep issues. If you have a good project manager and skilled team, scope creep will be of less threat to your projects.

At GBA, our team of experts recognizes the internal and external sources of scope creep and works to control the risk early in the process. For more information on how to handle scope creep, contact Ed Rafter.

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