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Why Scope Creep Happens And How To Manage It

Scope Creep

If you have ever set up or managed a work project, you’ll no doubt have come across scope creep. That’s because it's a common occurrence. How common? Some experts argue that every project, regardless of its size, is beset by it. If that’s the case, instead of preventing it, it’s critical to find ways of managing it.

Of course, others might argue that scope creep is entirely preventable if you put the correct markers into place. Or that it’s negative. That’s why it’s worth pointing this out: scope creep doesn’t have to be noticeable for it to qualify as creep. Even a small deviation during a project counts.

What is Scope Creep

What is scope creep?

Before we continue, it’s worth first uncovering scope creep for what it is.

Also known as requirement creep and feature creep, scope creep essentially refers to any unforeseen changes that you make to a project that you manage. These are the changes you notice once your project is up and running.

There are many reasons and causes for it, some of which we’ll uncover later in this article. Suffice to say, if the scope of your project changes as you go, it’s unavoidable.

Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence, a point we’ve already mentioned.

Here are the statistics to prove that. According to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2018 Pulse of the Profession survey, 52% of projects completed in the past 12 months experienced some form of creep. What’s even more significant is that it’s on the rise, jumping 9% from the 43% PMI reported in 2013.

          Is scope creep good or bad?

We’d argue that requirement creep is not good news. Yes, there is the argument that there are instances where it’s a good thing. It could help you pick up on missed opportunities, for example. Or show you how to better plan for similar projects in the future.

However, because it’s usually unauthorised, it prevents you from completing the goal of the initial project in time. Doesn’t that negate the point of setting up the project?

Of course, with any project, you do need to build in safeguards to ensure that if creep happens, you can at least manage it.

But what if you don’t? You only need to reconsider the PMI figures above. That means one of two things. Firstly, if there is a deviation, however small, you’ll find your team or yourself spending time on something that appears beneficial to the project at first - known as gold plating - but ultimately isn’t.

Secondly, it’ll increase your costs unnecessarily. What happens if you have a strict budget? Let’s imagine you’re a small retailer and you’re busy opening a new store. If you don’t factor in every possible outcome before setting the project in motion, you could quite easily find yourself breaking your budget and affecting your store before it even opens.

Why Does Scope Creep Happen

Why does scope creep happen?

Scope creep may be unavoidable but it’s still worth considering why it happens. If you can understand why it happens, you have every possibility of spotting the warning signs.

There are many different reasons or causes, a few of which we unpack below.

          Lack of clarity around the initial project

One reason for requirement creep stems from the project planning phase. As mentioned in this article on project scoping, you can break down a project into three steps. First, you plan. Then you control or manage it. Finally, you end the project by considering it and measuring its success.

If during the planning phase, you fail to determine all the work that you need to complete, what ends up happening is that you’re left with a broad idea of what you need to do.

You might have an end goal, but no concrete way of achieving it.

          Underestimating the complexity of the project

As part of PMI’s findings in its 2018 Pulse of the Profession survey, it was found that projects were becoming more complex, which also affects project scope, and by association creep.

Let’s say that you’re an FMCG retailer and you are planning a refresh of a category. That takes a significant amount of planning and understanding of precisely what you need to do to complete it on time and under budget.

If you’re just starting as a retailer, and you have never completed a refresh before, there is every possibility that you can underestimate the intricacies.

In that case, you must plan by either getting advice and guidance or purchasing specialised software that’ll help you manage any work project that you set-up.

          Allowing direct contact between colleagues and clients outside of the project

Another cause of feature creep is when you allow direct contact between your clients outside of the scope of the project and your colleagues who are involved in the project.

How does that look?

Let’s use the same example as above - you’re refreshing a category. So, the project entails all that goes into setting up and refreshing your chosen category. In most cases, you might find that the retail buyers have the final say in how you layout the category in-store.

That includes the merchandising flows and where each product appears on the shelf. Some products deserve more than others, for example.

However, you might have a supplier contacting one of the space planners on your team who is involved in the project hoping to persuade them to layout their products on the shelf in a way that wasn’t initially agreed upon.

This can cause undue stress and bring in unnecessary extra work.

How Can You Manage Scope Creep

How can you manage scope creep?

If scope creep is unavoidable, then how can you manage it effectively?

Fortunately, there are a few approaches to take. We’ll take the three reasons or causes mentioned above. We’ve haven’t listed them according to importance. Instead, each is equally critical to see any project through to successful completion.

          Ensure alignment on the work required to provide clarity

To combat the lack of clarity - and manage creep - it’s simple: you need to ensure alignment on all the work.

How do you do that? One way is to use specialised team management software built for retailers that has a project management function. More specifically, it needs to give you the option to build project plans.

If you’ve chosen good software, you should be able to include tasks with set deadlines, set up milestones that layout the project in a logical manner, decide on budgets to manage the cost and more.

As alluded to by Toptal in their article on scope creep, once you’ve created your project, “the project team lead should host a kick-off meeting with all team members to align on expectations, and key dates”.

Not only does this allow for proper alignment, but there is also less confusion about what each team member must complete and by when to complete the project on time and within budget. On top of that, there is an extra layer of transparency where you can foster a culture of accountability.

          Scope out all the details to combat underestimating the complexity

As already mentioned, project complexity is on the rise. Knowing this, it’s critical that before you publish your project and begin work, you need to scope out every detail. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant the detail.

It comes back to building in safeguards. Let’s say you want to open a new store. When setting up your project, you need to the name of your project manager and choose your start and end date.

Then include the purpose. That might sound obvious but after you write down the purpose - you need to let it drive every step. If your project deviates from the purpose, you’re likely to find creep.

Alongside this is to include all the possible risks. If you can plan for something, the risk is no longer a viable threat. Yes, it can still occur. However, you can anticipate it better if you have listed it as a danger.

          Choose one person as your central point of contact

Besides choosing the best possible team management software to plan your projects, it’s just as important for you to choose the right person to steer the project. It can be a specialised project manager or an account manager experienced in managing projects.

Either way, there are two reasons why you should do this. Firstly, with an experienced person at the helm, they can oversee the work and ensure that it all runs as smoothly as possible. They can cut out any unnecessary work that doesn’t directly impact the project.

Secondly, by choosing a central point of contact, there should be confusion around who to speak to if creep does appear.

Let’s take the example of the supplier approaching the space planner directly to persuade them to give more shelf space to their products. If you appoint a central point of contact, the chances of that happening will decrease.

Every point of communication would need to go through your project manager. They can then decide to either stick to the original scope of the project to include additional work to improve the overall project. That means less stress and less gold plating.

More importantly, it means there is a higher chance of seeing a project successfully through to completion. You can address any work outside of the project once you have completed it.


Activ8 is team management software for retail with project management functionality. If you’re interested in creating, managing and seeing successful projects through to completion, Activ8 is for you. Learn more by scheduling a demo with one of our sales consultants here.

Darren Gilbert

With over 10 years of writing and marketing experience, Darren joined DotActiv in 2017 as a content writer where he was responsible for producing blogs, Ebooks and more. He has since worked himself up to the role of content manager, where he oversees all and any content produced by the company.

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