Standing Up to Scope Creep

    By: Tom Goebel, PMI Houston Director of Communications

    I once worked for a company that couldn’t say no. The minute the customer demanded concessions or extra services (no change in price, mind you!) so fearful was our organization about the loss of business or revenue that we would inevitably cave. This tendency was ultimately made worse during market downturns when we desperately trying to cling to market share.

    Here’s the thing, though. That behavior is a losing proposition. It also has a way of becoming habitual. Scope creep creates several lasting effects, none of which are very desirable:

    • a breakdown in staff morale – nothing defeats a team so much as wondering whether they’re going to be loaded down with even more work tomorrow;
    • loss of client respect and attendant abuse of goodwill – requests become expectations, and expectations demands when the provider gives in too easily;
    • loss of customer confidence in contracted company’s knowledge and sense of direction; 4) loss of negotiating power – a subset of reason #2, the customer starts to believe that there is no substance behind the contractor’s negotiating position.


    Let’s examine some of the reasons for scope creep. You already know the causes if not the ultimate symptom. The most obvious is the weak Project Manager. This is the guy who can’t say no. When you don’t say no, your Project Management train’s next stop is overpromising, the results of which are entirely predictable. Soon, there is no possible way to deliver internal and external commitments, and confidence in the PMO is frittered away. In some cases, this weakness is not owned by the PM, but the sponsor or executive team.

    An improperly defined scope can also lead to mission creep. Unclear or vague requirements lead to accidental and even intentional misapplication. Good planning in the definition stage leads to clear understanding by all parties during execution.

    Another contributor to scope creep is the lack of a good change control process. Unsurprisingly, the mere act of securing approval for a large change serves to prioritize that change, even to the point of elimination, if needed. The change control process greatly facilitates communication by ensuring the involvement of critical stakeholders.

    When managing a project, it is important to pay attention in the early planning stages to accurate scope definition that aligns what the customer wants with what he’s going to get. Do this by interacting with the customer to make sure he has a clear picture of what the deliverables will be. Just as importantly, your team needs to have a clear idea of deliverables. Once armed with these agreements, the notion of any pushovers on the team should evaporate. Confusion and obfuscation have been removed from the equation.

    Finally, see to your change control process. Ensure that you have included the channels and stakeholders needed to effectively expedite approvals.

    There are undoubtedly more contributors to scope creep. I’ve just listed the main culprits. Working to address these should help you to run a smoother and more productive project.