How To Nail Down Project Terms And Avoid Scope Creep

By February 15, 2016Project Management
How To Nail Down Project Terms And Avoid Scope Creep


Have you ever had that project that just doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion? That website still being built two years later, or a program that has been through so many minor feature changes, you’ve lost track.

Once you’re caught in that situation, it can be pretty difficult both to extricate yourself and to find the motivation to continue. It impacts your productivity and your ability to take on new projects, so your bottom line suffers too.

Scope creep happens when the original requirements, size, budget or timeline for a project blow out beyond original expectations. These extensions of requirements don’t always come from the client – sometimes it is the consultant who adds them in an effort to please the client, or because they have some kind of perfectionist vision for the project.

How can you avoid endless streams of iterations or branching out into requirements you didn’t think you’d be covering? The secret is in managing yourself and your interactions with clients, how you nail down the project terms in the first place, and in how you enforce them during the project…

Have A Good Plan

Taking your time to establish a well-constructed plan from the start is key.  A good project plan can actually be a point of difference that causes clients to hire you over others.

Think about it: how comfortable do you feel handing money over when you’re not exactly sure what it’s going toward? A good plan will not only set up the scope of the project, but it will give your client confidence that they are hiring an expert. On top of that, if the client has confidence and trust in you, they are less likely to interfere with the scope or deliverables of the project part-way through.

Here are a few steps to have in place at the beginning of your projects;

#1 – Know The Desired Outcome

The desired outcome should be much deeper and more specific than “build a new website.” It  should relate to the business outcomes desired by the client; for example, “increase product sales 40% by updating to a more user-friendly design with an obvious sales path.”

Using SMART methodology is a great way to ensure you’re creating good, clear goals for your project. SMART goals are:

  • Specific – written simplistically and clearly defined.
  • Measurable – what tangible evidence will you have that the goal has been achieved?
  • Achievable – they should be defined well enough that you can achieve them, as well as be within your abilities.
  • Results-focused – measure outcomes, not activities.
  • Time-bound – link them to a time frame which creates some level of urgency.

Having that specific goal front and center helps with guiding the direction of the entire project. It’s much easier to weed out items that should not be in-scope if the outcome is clear.

#2 – Work Together To Define Scope

A Scope Of Work Document is used in most major projects, but is also useful for smaller, one-person projects (though you may use a leaner template than larger, multi-person projects). Its purpose is to clearly define the project outcomes, deliverables and inclusions. As Bright Hub PM states, you may want to allow for exceptions, but it is generally accepted that if it’s not on the Scope of Work, it’s outside of scope.

Scope creep becomes easier to avoid if you work closely with the client to define the scope in the beginning. This gives them the chance to express their ideas, while you shape them into deliverables with a direct impact on achieving project goals.

If you develop a common understanding from the start, it is much easier to point back to the scope documentation should the client want anything added later. You are also better able to avoid an unhappy client if you know they’ve entered the agreement with the same understanding of scope as you. Make sure the scope has been set up to meet their initial expectations so that there is no disconnect between what they think is included and what actually is included.

#3 – Get Everything Agreed In Writing

Apart from your Scope of Work document, you should always have a contract signed by clients. It should include the price they agree to pay, by when and how, and any other contractual stipulations. To help stay on-scope, contracts should include:

  • A statement that additional requests outside of the Scope of Work will incur an additional fee. To maintain absolute transparency, you may want to include a premium rate at which additional works will be charged in this part of the contract. This can also serve to encourage the client to stay within scope.
  • A statement that additional requests should be agreed upon by the client and the contractor in writing.
  • An “out” clause should either you or the client wish to terminate the contract.


Cartoon by Automation Centre

Get the Bonus Content: Questions To Ask That Will Help Narrow Your Scope

Sometimes It’s You…

Sure, sometimes clients can be difficult, but did your never-ending project start out that way? You are responsible for setting the tone of a project from the beginning, so if you set yourself up as a “yes” person, clients will take their cue from you and often people will feel they can ask more of you.

We all like to land a new client. Most of us are also mindful of looking after them and keeping up a good reputation for customer service, but sometimes that can mean being too hasty with our decisions in an attempt to be accommodating.

Perhaps you were in a hurry to get a contract signed and didn’t create a narrow-enough project scope, or perhaps you just have a hard time saying no. Whatever it is, you need to recognize these tendencies in yourself so that you are prepared to set the right tone.

This is all part of “managing expectations” with your client – it’s your job to communicate clearly and ensure the client understands exactly what to expect.

Take Your Time

The same thing can happen during discussions with the client throughout their project. They ask you whether you can add X or do Y and you feel pressured to come up with an answer on the spot (and we all know what that answer is going to be for a “yes” person).

This is where having a project well-constructed from the beginning will help: don’t feel pressured to answer immediately. You can always say something like; “let me refer back to the scope/project plan and I’ll get back to you”.

Clients Expect Some Direction

The client hired you because you can provide them with something they can’t do for themselves. They expect you to be the expert and give them some direction on the project. This means you shouldn’t be afraid to gently push back when they want to flip-flop on design colors or request that the logo be bigger.

Demonstrate to your clients that you are the expert they expected to hire by providing clear explanations of why you think something will work better the way it has been done. We’ve talked before about not letting the client be in the driver’s seat of a project – they’ve hired you to manage their project, not the other way around.

Manage Yourself

Is it you who is adding requirements to the project as you go along? Sometimes the original requirements were vague, or you’re simply a bit of a perfectionist. If the items you are adding really are necessary to get a good outcome for the project, add them properly using change orders with your clients. These identify the change to scope and whether they impact on budget and timeline.

Using change orders is a good idea because:

  • They clarify the process for you and your client.
  • They give the client the option to say yes or to stick with the original plan.
  • They help ensure you are fairly compensated. You can say how much extra it will cost the client to have those features added.
  • Your clients will appreciate transparency.

Sometimes it’s necessary to add items to the original scope to do a good job, but try and keep these things in check with a clear paper trail.

Know When To Walk Away

You’re not going to be a good fit for every client who crosses your path. To avoid projects dragging on forever, utilize the out clause in your contract and know when to walk away.

If you feel that a client is trying to take advantage rather than acting in good faith, if they’re not happy with the original product or the revisions you did at their suggestion or even if there’s just a personality clash, it could be time to give it up.

In those situations, it is unlikely there will be a satisfactory outcome for either party so you’re better off letting it go rather than letting it drag out for months. Basically, the time to go is when continuing with the project will be more trouble to you than the outcome is worth.

Get the Bonus Content: Questions To Ask That Will Help Narrow Your Scope

Final Thoughts

Everyone who does project-based work will experience scope creep at some point, but you can minimize it if you create a well-constructed project plan.

By collaborating with the client to create clear project documentation, understanding their goals, managing expectations and how you communicate with them, you can keep scope creep under control, or at least be fairly compensated if additions to the initial scope are needed.

It really does often come back to how you manage things rather than what the client is asking, but if you can’t reach a fair resolution, know when to walk away.

abhinav marla

Author abhinav marla

More posts by abhinav marla