Avoiding Scope Creep

July 18, 2016 • By


Scope creep is the nemesis of designers and developers everywhere. Almost every client tries at some point to weasel in extra features that were not part of the original brief. When the scope of a project expands because of suggestions from your own team about ways the project can be improved, it’s not really so bad, provided that you can implement the changes efficiently. Normally, however, it is the client that is pushing extra features, and that’s usually something you’ll want to avoid. In this article, we’ll share some advice with you on how to manage and avoid scope creep so you can turn over more projects with less stress.

Why is scope creep such a big problem, anyway?

The simplest answer is that every time you succumb to scope creep and allow the client to weasel in a new feature that’s not included in the contract, you are robbing yourself, robbing all your other clients, and undermining the value of the contract that you’re working on. You may even allow a situation to arise, unless you’ve worded your contract very cleverly, where it is impossible for you to fulfill your obligations and that raises a possibility that the client may not have to pay you for any of your work.

How you’re potentially robbing yourself in such a scenario is that additional feature requests ought to be separate projects which can be billed for individually. As for robbing your other clients, in this case it’s not money but time that is at stake. Your other clients deserve their fair share of your time, and once scope creep hits a certain point, it’s going to take more and more of your time away from other projects. It’s obvious that a contract loses much of its power when you let any clause or condition of it slide. The more extras you allow to creep in unchecked, the more likely it is that your contract will eventually be working against you and in favor of the client. Don’t let that happen.

How clients get away with creating scope creep situations

Your client wants to get as much as possible for as little as possible. Don’t take it personally, it’s just business. All company directors are actually legally required to do whatever it takes to increase the value of their business, which is why the world of business is such an ugly arena in which to do battle.

As this is the case, it means you have to be vigilant. When originally establishing the contract, you need to be completely clear about what is included in the scope of the project, and lock down that scope as tightly as possible. You also need to watch for attempts by the client to weasel in those extras.

The usual method employed by clients is to call you at some really inconvenient time and make suggestions and requests that they know you don’t really have time to discuss with them. So they know there’s a good chance that you’ll just agree without really thinking the situation through carefully. Another thing they’ll do is say “Hey, we love what you’ve shown us so far, but we saw this feature on [other site] and it would be great if you could add that feature for us!”. There are all kinds of variations on that little speech, but they all add up to the same thing: more work for you for no additional payment.

Design contracts just as carefully as you design websites

Of course you have a contract, right? If you don’t, go smack yourself in the head, because you’re already losing the game. Every project should have a contract, so that the possibility for scope creep is reduced or at least managed. You could even build in scope creep clauses to define what should happen if the client makes additional requests after the commencement of the project, and how that situation will be handled. That includes adjustments to the costs of the project and the delivery times for milestone events.

Don’t take requests over the phone

Always get every request in writing. This is very important, because it provides a means of tracking what was requested, when, and by whom. It also gives you time to make a decision and respond appropriately, whereas if you discuss the matter over the phone, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up just agreeing to whatever the client asks for.

Make it clear that extra tasks may delay the completion time, and that they are billable

Minor changes are probably not worth the effort of making a fuss about, but any major request should be treated as a serious scope-changing event, and billed accordingly. Hopefully you will have already built in clauses to your contract to deal with this situation so that you’re not held to the original project milestones and completion date. That becomes especially important if there are any penalty clauses where the client can receive financial compensation if you deliver the work later than the specified target.

Keep track of time

You need a good picture of how much time is spent on any part of a project. You also need to know who worked on what and when. Changes will make an impact on all kinds of things, and some of those things may not be immediately obvious. For example, a minor change to some software feature might create a need for extra documentation, changes to support code and plug-ins, changes to content displayed on screen, and so on. Scope creep can infect your project with many tentacles of doom. If you allow even one past your guard, it could be creating a lot of extra work for your development team across different areas of responsibility.

Don’t be afraid to critique ideas and suggestions from the client

Clients sometimes do have genuinely brilliant ideas and suggestions. Most of the time they don’t. In fact, most of the time, their ideas really suck, because the ideas don’t actually come from them. The ideas come from the influence of other sites, from “marketing gurus”, from helpful people with suggestions (usually mom), and sometimes they’re simply created because your client is a lunatic.

Do evaluate those ideas with an open mind, but it’s likely you’ll have to point out flaws. When an idea is actually good, you can allow it and should mention that it’s a great idea, but… it’s something outside the original scope of the project so you will need to redefine the project and create a new contract. Telling the client this is a magical opportunity to make sure that they understand you’re a professional and that you’re not going to be pressured into anything. Of course, you have to be supremely polite throughout all of this discussion. There’s nothing to be gained from delusions of grandeur at this point.

Try to split large projects into their component parts and have a contract for each

This way, scope creep can be isolated to only a section of the project, giving it less chance to infect other parts of the project. It also means that you have more control over the outcome and you have everything organized in a way that allows you to manage the scope of each portion very precisely.

Try to make sure your contracts include very accurate descriptions of the scope of what is to be done

Contracts are there to protect you (and to some extent, the client), so that everything should go smoothly. That will happen if—and only if—you write the contracts very accurately and clearly. You need to define everything and anything that is included in the scope of the project and mention that anything that is not specifically included in that list is an extra, and considered to be outside the scope of the contacted project.

Business is supposed to be fun

No matter what you’ve heard, business should be fun. The moment it isn’t, you are not doing it right. Don’t let clients intimidate you, bully you, or push you into corners that you’re not interested in visiting. As a service provider, you’re meant to respect your customers, but that doesn’t mean that you should play the role of a fawning servant. Ultimately the message is you should give them what they want, but make them pay for it.

header image courtesy of Brett Tunick