What is Scope Creep in Project Management?

What is scope creep in project management?Table of contents

What is scope creep?

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At its end, a project produces a deliverable, which can be a product, a service, a documentation, or a result. The extent of the work needed to produce the final deliverable is the project scope. A project scope includes a scope statement and a work breakdown structure approved by the project sponsor.

Scope creep, also known as requirement creep or feature creep, is an unwanted event when the original project scope expands with additional features and functionality without the corresponding adjustments to time, budget, or other project resources. All projects encounter change, and change is neither good or bad. Based on the scope creep definition, change or expansion in the project scope becomes undesirable if it happened without proper assessment and approval. But if authorized, the change or addition becomes part of the project scope.

Effects of scope creep

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Every project will encounter change, because aspects and components in a project change. These include requirements, markets, client preferences, finances, available technology, or resources, to name a few. But letting scope creep in a project is always a definite risk and disadvantage. Scope creep results in the following:

  • Devoting project time and resources to unapproved changes
  • Decreasing allotted time and resources for approved parts of the project scope
  • Missed deadlines, project delays, overworked team, and/or over-budget
  • Final deliverable not according to project scope
  • Demotivated project team, disappointed project sponsor, and unhappy client

Read also: 5 Reasons Why a Project Plan Can Fall Victim to Scope Creep

Sources of scope creep

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Although the client seems to benefit the most when scope creep occurs, it is not always because of their action. Project managers should be aware of all possible sources 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. The project manager and other stakeholders should collate test results and user feedback and prioritize the changes they need to incorporate to the deliverable without affecting the project scope.

Internal stakeholders

Senior stakeholders can sometimes wield influence on the project because of their authority. By giving high importance to client relationship due to a marketing strategy, they might suggest additional features or functionality that can affect the duration and cost of the project. The project manager should relay clearly the impact of the additional scope to the project.

External partners

Some projects have dependencies to external partners and third parties where project teams have less control. These partners should clearly communicate changes in specifications, schedules, or support once they occur. All stakeholders should know about 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 manager

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.

Top 5 causes of scope creep

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Every work has the potential to expand in different directions. We saw the different sources where scope creep can enter from within and outside the project team. Here are the top five causes and some scope creep examples of how they happen.

Lack of scope definition

If the project has unclear scope definition, then project stakeholders can interpret the scope statement differently. In effect, each one will have a different understanding of the project scope, so they will ask for changes if they see a different deliverable than what they have in mind. The scope can be unclear because of lack of details or because of poor communication. As a result, the project team members may approach clients directly for clarification, and this allows clients to introduce scope creep.

Lack of scope management

Complete information, for example, on client requirements are rarely available from the start. Requirements can grow as the project progresses. When project teams have to make decisions by themselves, whether to add or reject functionality for recently discovered requirements, they become the source of scope creep. Project sponsors need to know about these new requirements, enter them in a formal process to manage scope changes, and make adjustments as needed.

Scope drift

Project teams need a consistent process for gathering requirements. Project sponsors should give project teams enough time to not only get complete and accurate information, but also to decompose high-level deliverables into smaller work packages using a WBS. There is a tendency for the scope to expand or extend if the objectives are not clear and measurable enough. Scope drift happens when the project scope includes more than what the client needs. Having too many stakeholders involve also create scope drift.

Lack of sponsorship or stakeholder involvement

Project sponsors are higher executives more focused on the big-picture of the business. When they or other essential stakeholders do not devote time to the project especially at the scope definition stage, other project team members or external partners step in to fill up the vacuum. Unfortunately, they do not have the right information or authority as the project sponsors to support the project all the way.

Length of project

The longer the project, the greater the chance for scope creep to occur. Project sponsors have more time to compare strategies. Clients can change their minds. Business markets can present new requirements. Project team members can discover new information or methods.

Ways to manage scope creep

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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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Jose Maria Delos Santos

Jose is a subject matter expert and member of the writing team for Project-Management.com and Bridge24. He has written hundreds of articles including project management software reviews, books reviews, training site reviews, and general articles related to the project management industry.