To some consultants, it’s a curse. To others, it’s an opportunity. For new consulting professionals though, scope creep in client projects is something to be aware of early on and to learn how to manage. If you aren’t able to manage scope creep effectively, it will cost you money on pretty much every client project you undertake.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep is the term we consultants use to describe uncontrolled project expansion. There is of course nothing wrong with client organisations changing their requirements as projects progress, as long as the changes are managed and as long as you don’t begin losing revenue as a result.

The trouble is, in many cases, neither the consultant nor the client take steps to manage scope creep, partially because changes start on a barely noticeable scale, and then increase over time—hence “the creep”.

If you follow the three tips I’m about to share though, you will be better equipped to identify the signs of scope creep and take steps to manage it before it eats into profits and affects client project budgets and timelines.

  1. Turn scope creep into a revenue-generating opportunity: The trick here is to recognise when a client starts to express wishes for something to be done which was not in the original project scope. If you are vigilant about this and you think you are able to deliver the extra requirement, ask the client what she believes the value of the deliverable to be. This is a good way to remain positive when discussing scope creep with the client and to make her aware that there will be an extra cost for the new deliverable. It also gives the client an opportunity to consider if the change in scope is important enough to spend money on.
  2. Insist on a very clear scope definition: It’s hard to apply tip #1 above and to generally manage scope creep if the project deliverables haven’t been clearly defined at the outset. That’s why it’s essential to be very firm about setting down the project scope and deliverables in writing once you have been engaged by your client. One way to do this is by using a scope agreement as part of your contractual requirements. Scope creep is typically the result of a misunderstanding, rather than willful attempts by clients to get something for nothing. With a written scope agreement, the risk of misunderstandings is reduced.
  3. Build contingency in your margin: If you follow the previous two tips for managing scope creep, you stand a better chance of reducing its impact on your profit. However, in many client projects, there will still be small expansions of scope which you might not think it worthwhile making a fuss about. This is something you should consider when setting your operating margins.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should build in an allowance for scope creep, since it’s something that should never be accepted as inevitable. However, if you build a contingency into your fees, scope creep will impact you less when it happens. If it doesn’t happen, you enjoy a slight improvement to your operating margin. Call it a bonus for keeping the project within scope and protecting the client’s budget.

Don’t Expect to Eliminate Scope Creep

I won’t pretend it’s easy to manage scope creep, but as already mentioned, it’s not something you should just accept as the price of undertaking client projects. Be thorough in your planning, stay vigilant for scope creep and if it arises, consider if you can accommodate it without being significantly out of pocket. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be afraid to say no.

Most customers will be aware of the venerable and popular adage—there’s no such thing as a free lunch—and will respect your honesty and the need for you to protect your profits. So whatever you do in your new life as a consultant, don’t become a slave to scope creep.

Best Regards,
Rob O’Byrne
Email or +61 417 417 307