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How to avoid scope creep with your clients: 10 actionable tips

Managing scope creep is essential to completing projects on time and building positive client relationships. Read on to learn what causes scope creep, what it can do to your projects, and how to prevent it. 

A project’s launch is always exciting. Things start to move forward, you get into a rhythm, and the client is happy with how things are going. 

Then, the client asks you for “just one more thing.” It may seem small, and you incorporate it instead of pushing back. Then something else comes up, or that small change suddenly seems big. Before you know it, the whole project’s timeline is in jeopardy.

Suddenly, you’re stuck in scope creep. It’s as frustrating as you’ve heard, and at its worst, it can sink a whole project. Learning how to avoid scope creep is essential for any business — and luckily, it’s all about planning.

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What is scope creep?

Scope creep happens when a client or outside circumstances add to a project’s scope of work. These changes usually mean the project will take longer, it’ll cost more, or both, causing dissatisfaction and frustration.

Common examples of scope creep include:

  • A contractor learns that a homeowner wants to add a fireplace to their project, requiring additional planning and ordering.
  • A website development team is 95% finished with a site, having allocated the entire budget, when the company decides it also wants an e-commerce store.
  • A content writer agrees to write eight blog posts for a flat fee. They submit the first piece, but the client returns it, asking for a completely different structure and two social media posts to accompany it.

Scope creep happens in every industry, from sole proprietorships with four- or five-figure contracts to multibillion-dollar companies. Fortunately, it’s also avoidable at every level.

The importance of avoiding scope creep

Scope creep causes extra work for the entire team, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The fallout ends up causing severe problems for both project teams and their clients. Examples include:

  • Missed delivery dates: With more work and the same amount of time to finish it all, you fall behind.
  • Projects going over budget: You set your project budget for the original parameters. If you don’t adjust to the changes, you may easily exceed that budget.
  • Poor-quality results: Faced with unexpected requirements, the team rushes the project to completion or moves forward with insufficient resources. 

Preventing scope creep helps you avoid these consequences with:

  • Smoother planning and communication
  • Less time spent troubleshooting
  • No rushing to completion
  • Stronger team morale
  • A better rapport with the client

Avoiding scope creep even protects your reputation. People come to know you as the business that handles everything, no matter what. 

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Causes of scope creep

To avoid scope creep, there needs to be ongoing clarity around the project’s parameters. You can lose that clarity in many ways, including:

  • Unclear project objectives: A project is vulnerable to spontaneous changes and additions without well-defined goals.
  • Poor communication: Regular updates and check-ins are the only way to clarify the project’s expectations. 
  • Lack of change-control processes: Well-managed projects have a standardized method for altering the scope. A change-control process defines the required steps for requesting, reviewing, approving, and implementing any desired changes.
  • Shifting client requests and demands: Clients may knowingly or unknowingly test a service provider’s boundaries by asking for more than they originally ordered. If the provider doesn’t have a way to manage that request, it expands the project’s scope.
  • Insufficient risk management: Without a plan for what to do “just in case,” any unexpected issues may add to the project’s scope.
  • Inadequate planning and estimation: Scope creep is almost inevitable if the original project requirements need to be revised.
  • Incremental changes: When “one more little thing” becomes multiple additional asks, the project’s scope grows out of control.
  • Minimal stakeholder involvement: The better you understand stakeholders’ requirements, the less likely scope creep becomes.
  • Unclear team dynamics and competing priorities: Teams must be on the same page regarding resources and scheduling. 
  • External factors: Some things are out of a team’s control. An extreme weather event can change the scope of a project in unexpected ways.
  • Underestimating the project’s complexity: It’s easy to visualize a project only in its simplest form. Start your planning process by considering how complex it could get, and then work backward from there.

10 ways to stop scope creep from wrecking your projects — and your reputation

Scope creep is harder to stop once it gets started. Prevent it before it happens by setting boundaries and keeping the line of communication open.

It always helps to have a plan B —and, if necessary, a plan C. Follow these 10 steps when scoping your next project and keep the creeping away.

1. Define the project’s scope up front

Before onboarding a client, hold a discovery session and learn what you need to know about the project. This step helps you establish the project’s parameters and create a workable schedule and budget. HoneyBook’s lead and contact forms allow you to ask questions and provide information up front to qualify your leads.

2. Document the project’s requirements

Write a scope of work describing the basic project parameters: participants, objectives, tasks, deliverables, costs, and timelines. Store the document in a convenient place where key stakeholders can access it. Project requirements are easy to document in a HoneyBook contract. Designed by legal experts, HoneyBook documents are customizable to meet your needs.

3. Always have a written contract

Client contracts set mutually agreeable goals, expectations, and parameters for a project. You can refer to your contract if the client proposes any changes or disagrees with how you handle unexpected circumstances. The contract should also describe how you’ll handle potential disputes.

4. Set up a change-control process and document any proposed changes

Before you start the work, get clarity on how you’ll handle any proposed changes. Specify in writing how the client can ask for changes and how you’ll implement the changes if appropriate. Use Honeybook to create files that you can edit and send for approval anytime throughout the project lifecycle.

5. Create a clear project schedule

Identify all of the steps and deliverables in the project’s timeline. Document who is responsible for each step and when meetings and check-ins should be held. If you create a project calendar through HoneyBook, adding delivery and meeting dates to each contract is easy. Your team and clients can find all of the necessary information in one place, leading to a clearer understanding.

6. Verify the project’s scope with stakeholders 

Moving forward with a project as soon as the team is on board can be tempting. Before putting boots on the ground, though, you should send the scope of work to the client and get their input. Ask them to verify when they’re ready to move forward.

7. Communicate regularly with your client and the project team

With HoneyBook, you can store all client communications associated with the project. Conversations are easy to find and reference, saving you the hassle of searching through your email inbox.

8. Discuss how changes will impact the project’s schedule

If the client proposes any changes or additions, discuss how executing those changes would affect the overall process. Calculate additional budgetary considerations and pushed-back deadlines whenever you can. Talk about whether those changes would be worthwhile economically and logistically.

9. Provide options for handling additional work

Suggest ways you can comply if the client wants to proceed with an addition to the project scope. Ensure each option is agreeable to you, and then invite the client to choose what works best. For example, would they prefer to create a new contract for the new deliverable or add the cost to their current contract?

10. Know when to say no

There may be times when you and the client can’t find common ground. If there’s no way for you to handle the additional scope without taking a serious hit, graciously decline. Have your contract handy if the client threatens to walk away. Continue offering alternatives if you can, but close the door if necessary.

Other tips to consider in stopping scope creep

In some cases, more communication is enough to stop scope creep in its tracks and keep the project moving forward. Here are three things to consider when searching for common ground:

  • Client education: Discuss the impact of a request on the project’s timeline, budget, and overall success. Go beyond deliverable due dates and discuss the snowball effect of scope creep. For example, if a web developer were to add an e-commerce store to a site at the last minute, what compromises would they need to make elsewhere?
  • Case studies and practical examples: If scope creep threatens a project, share examples of how you’ve managed similar situations with previous clients. Explain how you controlled the project’s scope for the best possible outcome. If you don’t have stories from your business, borrow someone else’s!
  • Scope management tools and software: As a clientflow management platform, HoneyBook keeps you and your clients on the same page. Forms, contracts, invoices, and project documents are easy to find and reference so scope creep doesn’t take you by surprise.

Keep your project scope documents in one place with HoneyBook

A successful project requires collaboration between you and the client. Clear communication and a mutual understanding of the project’s scope are essential. To keep that information organized, you need a place to store all of your client information — conversation and meeting records, pricing, planning documents, and more.

HoneyBook is an all-in-one clientflow management platform that enables businesses to secure new clients, qualify leads, book appointments, manage projects, and maintain relationships.

You can use HoneyBook to create proposals that streamline the scoping process. Each proposal can include contract, invoicing, and payment processing details. It’s easy to edit file templates and send them to your clients while collaborating on the final scope. Plus, you can communicate with your clients and schedule meetings through HoneyBook — all in one place.

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