Avoid Scope Creep! Watch Out for These Warning Signs.

Scope creep. Two harmless words that continue to be the source of disaster in so many projects. Scope, on it’s own, is simply part of any project. It sets the boundaries and determines what work will be done for what price. However, combine it with “creep” and both projects and relationships begin to crumble.

Creep stretches the original boundaries and can turn a simple tweak, a minor change, into a frustrating amount of unplanned extra work. Every project will have necessary changes that should be planned for in the original scope. But left unchecked, changes start to compound and drift away from the original agreement. There’s nothing like scope creep to make a developer swear, a client twitch, and a budget fall apart.

Don’t Assume Experience Will Protect You

It would be easy to think that experience lessens the chance of this happening. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Even the most experienced developer, project manager, or client can fall into the quicksand that is scope creep.

We definitely qualify as experienced. My husband has been developing websites for over 20 years and I’ve worked alongside him on almost every project. Most of our clients were small businesses or nonprofit organizations and were generally referred by previous clients. Project planning was face to face. Contracts were arranged on a handshake and our commitment to client satisfaction led to our success.

However, we found as most businesses do, growth seems to shine a spotlight on weaknesses. It took one project to teach us the importance of having clearly defined deliverables and the value of managing scope.

Beware of “Minor” Changes

About the time we were looking for bigger contracts, a designer we knew was building a website for his friend and needed a developer to create the functionality. The project looked like an excellent opportunity to build both a relationship and new skills. Instead, it was a slow moving trainwreck.

The initial project was big, but well defined. A list of deliverables was agreed upon and we set to work. However, as the website came together, the client began asking for adjustments. A few were expected, but the amount of adjustments had never been determined in the original agreement.

The continuous flow of changes began to bog down the process until nothing could be finished. In the end, nearly nine months of work almost fell apart because of two primary mistakes.

Avoid Overly Casual Client Relationships

The first mistake resulted from the designer, who was also the project lead, working for his friend. Anytime the client is someone you have a close, personal relationship with it’s easy to become undermotivated and unprofessional. It’s easy to set aside a friend’s project as “unimportant” when other work comes along.

Maybe the friend doesn’t even mind, but the contractor you’ve hired to help with other aspects of the project probably does. They’re relying on your effort in the project to meet the agreed upon deadlines. If changes happen in the project then the project lead is responsible for communicating effectively and in a timely manner with the rest of the team.

Be On the Lookout for Unspoken Expectations

The loose relationship the designer had with his friend, the client, led to the second and bigger mistake, at least for us. Because the client was used to the flexibility he had with his friend, he unrealistically expected the same flexibility from us.

He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t trying to abuse the relationship, but he had been allowed to build the expectation that he could simply have whatever he wanted. Afterall, wasn’t it his money and his project? He valued the work we were doing, but honestly didn’t understand that unlimited changes aren’t realistic in a project.

Don’t Forget the Original Scope

The original scope of the project had gotten lost in all the feelings and delays. Since the original agreement hadn’t covered how changes would be managed or compensated for, he had established his own expectations in this area. He became frustrated that we weren’t delivering what he wanted on time. We were aggravated that the changes continued to increase and kept us from delivering. The designer/project lead became harder to contact and coordinate with and everyone was nearing the breaking point.

We needed to be done. The client needed to be done. The stress and frustration were putting a strain on our family and, more significantly, the relationship between my husband and me. It was time to do something different or the situation was going to turn even uglier fast.

Save the Project with Honest Communication

Finally, we had to take initiative, work around the designer, and meet with the client. We agreed on a list of deliverables that would satisfy our commitment and meet his needs. We choose to handle the situation with a positive attitude that required us to give a little to the client, but maintained a positive relationship with both the client and the designer.

We learned the hard way that scope creep can do serious damage to a project and a relationship. This time we simply had to chalk it up to the cost of doing business. We lost some time. We lost some money, but we gained a stronger business and maintained our solid reputation. We lost, but we also gained valuable knowledge and insight that we could use to steer future projects away from the trap of scope creep.