Scope Creep – How to avoid, manage & kill it.

Scope Creep – How to avoid, manage & kill it.

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Scope Creep

Scope Creep. No it’s not that guy that’s been sitting in the corner of the cafe staring at you. In fact, if you don’t know how to deal with scope creep, it could be much worse.

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Scope creep, put simply, refers to uncontrolled changes in a client’s project scope. For example, a typical scenario could be when you’ve finished your design project to the original specifications and then the client emails you with a dozen different new changes and ideas. That is scope creep. The scope of the project may get bigger, but the budget may not.

The problem is that clients may not know what they want the finished product to look like until the design project is nearly over, so they make last minute changes and then you’re loaded with an extra day’s work, but not an extra day’s pay.

If you didn’t prepare for this with a contract up front, and the client is constantly changing their specifications, politely warn them that you limit your revisions to a certain number, so they are aware that whilst you are willing to be flexible, any additional changes will meet an additional charge. After all, you may have to work on multiple projects at one time and more time spent on one project cuts in to the time you will spend on another.

So how can you deal with scope creep in the future?

Make a contract. Before starting any project you should always sign a contract with the client, where you lay out your terms. It doesn’t need to be too long or detailed but you do need to outline your working conditions. This should include limits within the project scope and anything outside that will be subject to extra charges.

You could sign a completion document with the client, which states that the project is complete and that any further work will be charged at an hourly rate. Although hourly rates are not always the best, scope creep at an hourly rate could benefit both you and your customer in terms of over all time and money spent.

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Four other ways to kill scope creep are to say:

  1. Glad to help, here’s a new estimate.
  2. I can’t make that deadline.
  3. I can, but…
  4. No.

How do you deal with scope creep?

Angel photo & graphic design freelancers from Shutterstock.

15 thoughts on “Scope Creep – How to avoid, manage & kill it.”

  1. The best approach is probably to use something more akin to agile development (though you don’t need to adopt all their formal methods and terminology) – essentially, start developing right from the beginning, in rough form, then gradually add and refine as content is gathered, functionality requested, designs created and agreed on, etc. Prototype early, refine, and iterate until it’s “done” (meaning you run out of time/money or the client is happy with it, whichever comes first).

    The contract should not specify exactly what will be included in the site (in terms of content or functionality), any specific goals, how many rounds of creative revision, etc. It should just lay out a cost (which equates to hours of your time), and optionally a target completion date.

    Yes, that cost and completion date should be based on discussions with the client about their goals and a detailed internal estimate of what you think it typically would take to build such a site. But I’ve found that any other details turn out to be bogus wild guesses and are worthless to include – unless you’ve already fully designed the site, formally specified all functionality, gathered and edited all content, images and other assets, etc. and just need to build – in which case 85% of your work is already done and 85% of your costs already expended! At this point, it’s too late to worry about scope creep, because most of the creep has probably already happened!

    What happens in the “build early” scenario is when you run out of time/money and have to cut them off or ask for more, you already have a site built. It may not be quite the site they want (they may still want to tinker with the design or add more features or pages, or edit some of the content… all of which will be a never-ending process, which is natural and should be embraced – but paid for!).

    This is way better than the usual approach, in which you might have already gone over budget before you even start building anything. How can you say “I’m stopping work, no site for you” in that scenario? Your contract says you need to deliver a site. You have little choice but to spend extra time and money, that you didn’t budget for and which you won’t be paid for, to finish the site.

    There are lots of other benefits to the “build early” approach, but managing scope creep is definitely one of them.

  2. Very important consideration, whether freelancing or not.

    I find it’s vital to not quote too quickly. Meet with a client and discuss their needs and desires in as much detail as possible. Then go away and develop a scoping document, outlining costs and timings for individual aspects of the project. Providing that to the client helps them make a far more educated decision.

    Rather than limiting revisions to a certain number, when freelancing I tend to add a condition that “x additional hours for revisions are inclusive”. These means that a client isn’t being short-changed if, say, they have five very quick and trivial revisions. I’ve found that a surprising number of times, clients don’t even use this additional time.

  3. I agree with Robin’s suggestion to “not quote too quickly” for projects. Save the numbers for a carefully plotted proposal, instead of throwing numbers out during project meetings. Those casually handed quotes will haunt you later, as clients might cling to these later in the development process.

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  4. I’ve come across this kind of problem many times. Once I get over with the project I mail to client that you can see the documentation now. After two or three days clients call me and say why did you make these changes or why didn’t you make these changes. This is really a killing situation. We should learn how to say NO!

  5. Matt,
    Interesting points of view. I guess it comes down to the relationship you have with your client, and how reasonable you’re being with your work and their expectations. I’ve found if you do say ‘this will incur more costs’ and why then they will appreciate the honesty and be willing to negotiate.

    From Shutterstock. I always put photo credits in the footer of my articles, so you know for next time!

    Definitely, that is a beginners mistake to quote early. How can you quote when you don’t fully understand their needs, expectations and budget? I like your “x additional hours for revisions are inclusive”. That’s a good way to stay positive, rather than say ‘charges are xx for additional hours’.

  6. I have faced this problem a lot during the final stage of the design . The client keep on asking for changes like make the icon larger or make the text larger and some times they shift to another design presented for selection during the starting stage which makes me frustrated . I feel like saying out your third choice ( I can but….) 🙂

  7. I am so glad you posted this article. I work in-house and I think because it’s such close proximity, many people subtly abuse the resources (design being one of many). I generally introduce and fall back on what I call an SOS document (Sequence of Service) which educates the clients on the process of designing their project, so they are aware that if they make lots of changes to the content after giving it to me as final the first time (content being at the beginning of the process) it is going to cut into the time allotted down the road for the hard core design and “embellishments”. I have an SOS document for each major type of project I do: a presentation, an email campaign, or a print piece. Sometimes the client’s don’t like it, and I’ve been called unapproachable (perhaps because I try not to negotiate the SOS very often… slippery slope, and all), but overall people seem to appreciate knowing what’s next and how much time they really have. They can then push back on their OWN clients’ scope creep.

  8. Hey what a valuable article and discussion. This is a really hard one. I think a few years ago I was typically the creepy client. To be honest and I am trying to look at the customers point of view. When you go to a designer and do not have a clue! which I did not at the time. Of course it obvious when it comes back there are bound to be amends. I actually really liked it but, BUT I add it was not a practical design for ecommerce. It just did not work. I think when doing the contract you have to allow for some modifications and agree up front and then charge hourly.

  9. Scope creep was my worst enemy until I decided to adopt a time & material billing modality for all my projects. Does not matter how little the task is. From simple newsletter designs to full-sized e-commerce projects I always provide PERT estimates based in a hourly rate. Fixed quote is the right path for scope creeps or client’s dissatisfaction.
    As the project starts the knowledge tends to improve at the client’s side. With this in mind changes are natural and beneficial to every project. If your modality, contract or methodology does not allow changes and the building-up of ideas, it may be worth to review it.
    You would be surprise of how your estimates get accurate overtime and the number of awesome clients you will retain.
    If the client does not accept a flexible estimate and time & material billing, so.. time to use the number 4. No. The project seems attractive, but this is not the kind of client you may want to build a relationship with. Just my 2 cents… 🙂 Great post, love the blog!

  10. The best way to stop scope creep is to know what you are offering in your contract and when the client is requesting something beyond the agreed scope. It’s always a good idea to learn to say “no”, however many business owners don’t want to do that for fear of losing their business to another company who might not be as savvy. An alternative is to provide a change order form. In essence you are just making a change to the original contract that adds the additional work, for an additional price, of course. As a professional design company we find this approach to be a good middle between saying “no” and losing money to extra scope that wasn’t agreed upon in the first place.

  11. Great insight everybody. A thing I often wrestle with is “Come back to me with a proposal.” I then spend huge amounts of time responding with a multi-page document that — many times — results in nothing. To combat this, I’ll sometimes request a fee to ‘scope out’ a project/program. Again, this is often met with the “What? You mean it’s not free?” expression. Anyone else in the same boat?

  12. From time to time, I experience something similar when doing the translation. Therefore, I make it clear to my clients in advance that I will not do additional work for the same price.

  13. Well if your client is professional and aware of all those things in that case you can make a contract with them (i.e. if you working with some IT company), but if your client is who’s dream to build website and he/she don’t know how this process works in that condition you can’t give them scope of work or contract, in this situation you have to sit with client understand his/her requirements, their business, what they like etc then you’ll have an idea what they like you can design according to that, this thing works for me and i hardly get any revision in work.

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