What is Scope Creep in Project Management?


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What is scope creep in project management?

All projects encounter change over their lifetime. But change isn’t always synonymous with scope creep. Based on the scope creep definition, change or expansion in the project scope becomes undesirable if it happened without proper assessment and approval.

How Does Scope Creep Happen?

The competing demands of a project are summarized by a triple constraint: time, scope, and cost. The idea is that when one of the constraints is adjusted, the other two are affected as well.

Time is the project schedule. Shortening a project’s schedule, or time, might require you to increase your budget to crash your project or adjust the scope by cutting off features. And if the budget were cut, you might have to remove features again or adjust the schedule to avail of less expensive resources.

With scope creep, additional project requirements are added after the budget, timeline, and scope (what’s needed to complete the project) have been established by the project manager. Unchecked, scope creep can result in a combination of cost overruns, delays, and ultimately client satisfaction.

Read more about the other main causes of project failure.

Top Causes of Scope Creep

Undocumented scope

There’s no assurance that expectations are aligned between your project team and your stakeholders without a documented scope. This can result in added requests, with you having no way to defend your case.

Bad change management

Change management is selecting which change requests need to be rejected or implemented. Guidelines are vital. For example, the content team can accommodate major changes during the outline stage, but only minor edits will be accepted.

Extended slack

Slack is the extra time in production that doesn’t affect the project’s overall beginning and end date. While having a lot of slack can be beneficial to support unforeseen circumstances, it can also invite new requests to come in because of the illusion that there’s a lot of room for it.

Poor management

Good management isn’t just about keeping track of progress. It also has a lot to do with fielding a team’s effort to achieve the best results. Saying “no” is a vital part of managing a team, especially if requests are out of scope and affect the project objectives.

Unclear project goals

Without clear goals, stakeholders and even the project team won’t be able to prioritize and make decisions with clarity. Every improvement will seem appealing, and every change request will feel important.

User feedback and new findings

Perhaps the most valid change requests will come from user feedback. New data can give the team insight they did not have before. While it will cause extra work, user feedback can ultimately make products more marketable which is a vital objective for most projects.

Look out for these 5 Reasons Why a Project Plan Can Fall Victim to Scope Creep

How to Avoid Scope Creep

Set clear project goals

Your project’s goals should be relevant to your client’s business and clear to everyone involved. Identify the most important things your project has to accomplish, and document them for easy reference. This way, you can evaluate new requests with respect to how significantly they impact the achievement of your goals.

Document project scope and limitations

Setting your project’s scope in stone will help you defend your deliverables if you encounter issues with its approval. Talk about what your project will cover and what it won’t. This will protect you from new and sudden KPIs (key performance indicators) that were not initially agreed upon and help you clear your deliverables with more ease.

Make clear change management parameters

Establish the types of changes your team can accommodate and relevant deadlines stakeholders need to note. Apart from establishing rules, be firm in implementing them as much as possible.

Stakeholder management

Involve relevant stakeholders in goal-setting and planning. Establish systems for them to communicate with your team and constantly align on progress and expectations. The key is to ensure you’re always on the same page regarding the project’s scope and limitations, so they will be more open to negotiating and collaborating in case they feel the need to bring up new requests.

Get user feedback as early as possible

Anticipate activities that bring you new information that can potentially alter your plans and scope. Try to schedule as much research and user testing during your requirements phase as possible. This way, you can minimize the number of things that need to be adjusted on the fly.

Manage scope creep by establishing good relationships with your stakeholders; clarifying goals, scope, and KPIs; and maximizing your requirements phase.

Read More: What is Project Management? Definition, Types & Examples

Scope creep is rarely external

Project managers should be aware of all possible sources of project input and be ready to negotiate to keep the project on track. Here are some scope creep examples from likely and unlikely sources.


Project teams are aware that the client may request small additions that can accumulate to something big and create enough impact. They can also change their mind mid-stream or suggest how team members do the work and affect the total effort.

Read also: 8 Expert Tips to Overcome Scope Creep without Losing Clients


User feedback is an important source of information to make sure the project will deliver the desired value for the business. However, it’s up to you, the project manager to understand test results and user feedback and prioritize the changes to the deliverable without affecting the project scope.

Internal stakeholders

Senior stakeholders can sometimes wield outsized influence on the project because of their authority. For example, in placing high importance on the client relationship, internal stakeholders might suggest additional features or functionality that the client might appreciate, but that would affect the duration and cost of the project. The project manager must clearly articulate the impact of the additional scope to the project.

External partners

Some projects have dependencies on external partners and third parties where your project teams have less control. These partners must clearly communicate changes in specifications, schedules, or support once they occur. Further, all stakeholders should know about these external project dependencies at the start of the project.

Team members

Team members can unintentionally introduce scope creep if they themselves are unclear of the project scope. They may voluntarily include new features or functionality to simplify a process or to solve a problem. Innovation is helpful as long as it does not create bigger problems for others or as a whole.

Project managers

The project manager can be a source of scope creep due to an absence of a change management process. PMs need to make sure they deliver projects on time and within budget, so the pressure to create shortcuts to address issues or problems without asking the project sponsor for a change request is present.

Ways to manage scope creep

Change is inevitable, and scope creep can occur in every occasion of change. Project managers cannot totally stop scope creep and should always expect it. They should document requirements properly, create a clear project schedule, and engage the project team. Creating a change control process enables a project team to positively handle scope creep. This process includes:

  • Monitoring the project’s status and comparing it with the baseline scope
  • Determining the cause, source, and degree of the changes from the scope creep
  • Setting up a change management process that handles change requests, impact assessment, and recommendation or approval.
  • Regular communication, verification, and reporting with project sponsors and stakeholders

Projects using agile methodologies are more adaptable to changes. They have shorter sprints, daily meetings with client representatives, and use prioritization tools in their backlog. However, scope creep can still occur when project teams do not adhere strictly to the practices, although impact can be at a lesser degree.

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