How to Manage Scope Creep

Travis Grant By: Travis Grant  /  Strategic Marketing Partnerships

Every agency has stories about scope creep swallowing projects whole. There are a lot of reasons for scope creep but it mostly has to do with how well expectations are communicated and managed. So what is this scope creep business, anyway? Put simply, it’s the sum of small changes that occur outside the boundaries of process, causing delays and even paralysis on a project. When you’re investing in a website or a brand or a campaign, you need things to be perfect. It’s how I feel when I’m managing creative projects or obsessively editing my own writing. Without realistic boundaries, it could go on forever, and, after a certain point, you’re just pushing pixels, to no substantial end. 

So how do we avoid it? It’s simpler than you might think. Every plan is sound in theory; what looks good on paper doesn’t always go so well in practice. For a strategic plan to be successful, it needs commitment from all parties, on both the client and agency side. 

Every project ought to have a strategic plan based on careful and attentive discovery, outlining a clearly defined process that supports achieving your articulated goals, objectives, timelines, and milestones. Roles should be assigned and responsibilities stated, with critical points of client feedback built in so that there are no surprises and that all work is guided by clearly defined intervals of input and oversight. With this in place, the total budget of a project can be distributed in time estimates for tasks, with a portion of the total time set aside to absorb any “unforeseens”. The result should be a tightly managed project that is profitable for the vendor and valuable to the client. 

Like I said, the best laid plans can still go sideways and, in my experience, it’s always because the process gets subverted. There are two ways this usually happens. The first is that a new person who has his own ideas about artistic direction is brought into the project, usually at a late stage, and wants to assert them. The second way this happens is when clients aren’t engaged at intervals when their input is most critical and they suddenly become hyper engaged in the late stages of the project. Both have a devastating effect on timelines, productivity, and profitability. 

It seems easy enough to the person requesting the radical change (it’s just design, isn’t it? Move that there, change this to that, and voila!); but it’s actually like visiting a construction site after all the plumbing, electrical, drywall, and flooring have been installed and asking if you can move a bathroom from the north side of the building to the south side. It’s just a bathroom, right? That should be easy! Well, actually, you have to rip out drywall, reroute plumbing, pull wires to accommodate the electrical, and on and on. It blows timelines and adds unjustifiable costs that, if laid bare, no contractor would or should agree to absorb, and precious few clients would ever agree to cover. The work we do—whether it’s a website, a brand, a creative campaign, whatever—is fundamentally the same, from planning to the stages of the build. Backtracking to previous stages effectively means starting over. 

In the end, avoiding scope creep all comes down to process and fencing in projects. It leaves everyone feeling engaged, and the finished product always ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.