Project Scope Creep: How to take control and get back on track

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Project Scope Creep: How to take control and get back on track

Scope creep. Along with managing people, it’s one of the greatest challenges you’ll face in delivering a successful project.

If you’re dedicated to your project and your stakeholders, then scope creep is something you can easily find yourself dealing with in the projects you deliver.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at what scope creep is, why it happens, how to get a project that’s experiencing scope creep back on track, and how to prevent scope creep in the first place.

It helps to start by taking a look at project scope and why it continuously becomes railroaded as you deliver your project.

What is project scope creep?

To define exactly what scope creep is, I’ll start by explaining project scope. Let’s think of it in visual terms.

Project Scope is the fence which locks in the responsibilities of the project team. It includes the tasks, processes, resources, agreements and activities that the team will either build, assemble, source, fix, govern or oversee to deliver the commitments of the project.

Anything on the outside of the fence is out of scope. The moment you start agreeing to delivering things outside the fence line, your project will be experiencing scope creep.

Why Scope Creep Happens to Projects

The scope of your project needs to be defined at the very beginning of the project before any work starts. It also needs to have the support and agreement of all project members as well as key project stakeholders.

It’s in the scoping process that you’re setting your project up for success. And most projects absolutely outline the scope at the beginning. So, if you’ve already outlined project scope, how can scope creep happen?

The problem lies in how the scoping process occurs, what information is captured, and the information that you haven’t considered.

The Top Reasons for Scope Creep

When we understand the reasons for scope related problems, we’re more likely to find ways to prevent them.

The top reasons scope creep happens in a project are
1. Saying Yes when you should Say No

This is when a project team agree to take on unplanned tasks that are outside of what was originally agreed in the project scope. It’s Scope Creep 101 and it results in lengthy delays and complex effort that are not always aligned to the original project objectives.

2. The project Why? is unclear

If you aren’t clear on why you’re doing a project in the first place, then your scope won’t factor in the critical needs of the client and scope creep will happen in order for you to deliver the project objectives.

3. The Scope statement is Vague

Much like #2 above, if you didn’t ask enough questions during the scoping process, you’ll end up with a scope statement that’s vague and doesn’t cover critical project inclusions that should have been considered as part of the project in the first place.

4. Loose Boundaries

New information comes to light that requires new or additional project tasks and there are no tight boundaries around deviations. If scope is a fence, then loose boundaries let scope creep in.

5. Misunderstanding at the Start

If the team doesn’t understand what the project is expected to fix or solve, then the fence around the project is always moving. This leads to vague scope statements and plenty of deviations getting through the boundary.


When any of these things happen, it results in additional unplanned effort, time and even budget having to be allocated to a project to get it over the line.

Taking on new scope items mid-project also devalues the objectives of the project, causes unanticipated consequences and may not even be feasible to deliver at all.

Before we look at how to fix scope creep after it’s happened, it’s important to learn how to prevent scope creep from happening in the first place.

3 Strategies for Preventing Scope Creep

Most scope related project issues can be prevented by implementing 3 key strategies when you’re defining the original project scope.

These 3 strategies are:
  1. Understanding the pain points or needs that initiated the project
  2. Setting detailed and tight boundaries for in scope and out of scope items
  3. Clearly defining processes, risks, and penalties for changing the scope

Let’s dive into each of these points in detail.

1. Understanding the pain points or needs that initiated the project

Projects are always born from a need. Whether this is a pain point, a goal for improvement or something else, it’s important to understand what the needs are straight from the person who is feeling the pain. Let’s call them the client.

Uncovering these needs should be followed by uncovering the needs of the other key stakeholders who will decide the success of the project.

You might be surprised to find out that the client’s needs, at times actually differ from the intended deliverables of the project.

Identify conflicting objectives early

Discovering you have conflicting objectives for the project is an opportunity for further discussions and considerations – if it’s seen early. Identifying such a critical variation later in the project will almost always compromise project commitments.

When we first take on a new project, it’s normal to be excited about the value we can add and all the possibilities we can create. You aren’t alone if you get lost in the possibilities and gloss over the core need.

Basing the scope on a clear set of client needs mapped out by the project team’s capabilities, reduces instances of additional requirements popping up further into the project, or teams accepting work they are not skilled to deliver. It empowers the team to call out what they can and can’t do and helps to highlight skills or resources needed on the project to achieve certain requirements.

Improve the team relationship

Collaborating with your customers to outline a considered and purpose-driven project scope, also improves the team’s relationship with their stakeholders. Your client is more likely to keep you informed as the project rolls out, because they already feel heard and understood.

Understanding the need gives everyone much more visibility and insight to make informed decisions and deliver a valued project outcome.

2. Setting detailed and tight boundaries for in scope and out of scope items

When it comes to preventing scope creep, you need to make sure that you’re treating in scope and out of scope items as equally important, even though they have different considerations.

In Scope 

In scope items include the deliverables, processes, and resources that the project team commits to manage, deliver or own to satisfy the client’s needs.   

The scope must:
    • Be thorough and succinct
      Consider including documentation, licenses, on-going support and stakeholder engagements that are in scope
    • Ensure each scope item is tangible so it can be measured by all parties
    • Be understood and agreed by all members of the project team and key stakeholders


Just like an insurance policy, the scope should not be open to interpretation in case of a dispute. 

Work completed outside the project team

There’s another in scope definition that isn’t often considered. 

Where project work is done by someone outside of the project team (such as an external contractor), project teams have a tendency to leave this work as an out of scope item. 

The reason for this is often attributed to timing and minimal regard for the quality of the work. But there are two major problems with not including this work into the scope of the project at the start. 

First, if a deliverable is funded from the project budget, the outcome of the deliverable will have a direct impact on the success or failure of the project. 

Second, the project team is always accountable for the quality of work associated with the project spend. So, if the work is not up to scratch the project team will lose the trust of critical stakeholders, causing major impacts on the project particularly when needing approvals. 

Out of scope 

You should make sure that any project elements that are deemed out of scope for the project are clearly communicated, and that all the impacts of leaving them out are understood and agreed by all members of the project team, as well as key stakeholders. 

Documenting out of scope items in the project scope now – before you begin – will make it easier to say “no” if it comes up again later down the road.

3. Clearly defining processes, risks, and any penalties for changing the scope

Sometimes, no matter how well you’ve scoped a project, changes might be needed and important.

While you don’t want to prevent these sorts of changes from being considered, it’s critical to minimise the temptation of making spontaneous or sporadic changes to the scope without understanding the full implications.

The best way to reach a happy medium between agreeing to required changes and deviating from the project’s scope, is to set requirements that need to be met before any change can be considered.

Setup requirements for scope changes

If you have a set of requirements that need to be met before scope changes can be considered or approved, this will make it easier to assess whether or not you should deviate from your original plan.

These requirements can include things like:
    • A feasibility assessment must be completed for new scope with a rating of higher than X
    • The proposed scope change must be reviewed and endorsed by [nominated individuals]
    • All risks and constraints must be declared to and accepted by [nominated individual]
    • Cost and timeline implications must be declared to and accepted by [nominated individual]
    • Nominating any restrictions to points in the project when scope can no longer be changed

How to Take Back Control of a Project Gone Rogue.

Of course, all of this is useful in setting up your project to prevent scope creep in the first place.

But what do you do if you have a project that has already ventured into scope creep territory? How can you take back control and successfully deliver a powerful project?

Unless your project has a never-ending budget supply and an ongoing timeline (which, by definition, would mean it’s not a project), then chances are, you won’t be able to get through both your existing and new set of priorities.


STOP. Review. Reprioritise. And follow these five steps.

To avoid project failure, it’s critical to Stop, Review, and Reprioritise.

Then use these five steps to steer your project back in the right direction:
    1. List out all existing and newly accepted scope items
    2. Find out your client’s needs – it’s never too late to find out how to succeed
    3. Map out any additional scope items required to satisfy the client’s needs
    4. Work with your clients to prioritise the complete list of scope items
    5. Using the priority list, agree what can be achieved within the remaining timeframe and budget. Make sure you factor in the team’s skills and your existing resources. Anything requiring external assistance would typically fall out of scope due to timeline and budget implications.


This new list of tasks and deliverables forms your new locked down scope. Everything else is out of scope.

And, so you don’t find yourself in the same place as before, make sure you clearly define the process and authorisations needed to consider any further changes to scope.

Don’t Let Scope Creep Take the Shine off Your Project.

Scope creep is definitely one of the greatest challenges projects can face. It creates stress within the project team, and ultimately, it can stop you from delivering the project you know you can deliver.

But only if you let it.

By following one or all of my strategies for preventing scope creep, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding the pitfalls it brings, and delivering projects that you, your team and your client will be proud of.

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