As digital project managers, we all know it and we all dread it, but working in the digital space makes us especially prone to scope creep. Regardless of their best intentions, clients will always try to expand on the original features of the project; whether it’s a small request or a large one, we all know it is bound to happen. While my immediate reaction is to go on the defensive against scope creep, I’ve learned that managing it can take on different forms in different circumstances. So I’m going to take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of scope creep.
I’m sure you find yourself thinking: “There’s good news?” There can be. We can all admit that scope creep is inevitable in the fluid and dynamic digital space. However, as a mobile PM at Crowdtorch and a digital PM at Springbox, I’ve experienced several instances when client feature requests have resulted in platform fixes and improvements, and even helped expedite road-mapped features. If addressed quickly and managed appropriately, scope creep can shed light on product issues and introduce opportunity for improvement. Additionally, when expectations are solidified at project outset, scope creep can open up consultative lines of communication with clients and create a more collaborative working relationship. So while we all probably see scope creep as an inherent negative, sometimes positives can be gleaned from client overreach.
But let’s face it, we all think of scope creep as a bad thing. While there is the potential for it to unearth better solutions, there is greater potential for it to adversely affect the project. As PMs, project milestones are one of our biggest drivers, and timelines are usually the initial fallout when scope creep enters the picture. However, clients are often sensitive to timelines as well, so use that to your advantage first. Manage client requests by couching their desires in terms of timing: “We’d be happy to explore the possibility of building a rate calculator, but that will push the delivery date back about three weeks.” When time is of value to the client, you won’t have to do much to make them reconsider.
If client expectations aren’t managed early on, scope creep can also result in unrealistic promises and inflated client “rights” to continual project expansion. When you acquiesce to a client request at the beginning of the project, you’re at risk of setting a standard for frequent scope creep throughout the project. Setting a strong precedent at project kickoff and establishing solid timelines and defined scope will help allay client overreach going forward. In most cases, scope creep is detrimental to the project lifecycle and results in the need for additional management time to get the project back on track. Early detection of the creep helps contain it and can still result in fostering a collaborative relationship with clients as you pose solutions within the initial scope.
Pardon my pessimism (or realism), but oftentimes scope creep can get ugly. Newsflash – clients aren’t always right. Client requests don’t always result in overall product improvement. As PMs, we not only manage the client relationship and keep it intact, but we also manage the process of working with internal development teams to determine what requests and features would actually provide value to the client and the product line as a whole. When you get into a situation of severe scope creep, it not only affects the client relationship and project milestones, but can also create a ripple effect throughout your product line and organization as it derails other projects and affects internal development queues. We all know happy developers make for happy projects, and all too often scope creep results in grumpy devs.
Then there is always the obvious budget issue. Additional scope not only overreaches the project budget, but also drains PM and development time, which takes away from other revenue-driving project initiatives.
In conclusion, scope creep isn’t always a bad thing. Get out in front of it by setting solid expectations and open communication channels at project outset. When you sense the creep, try to manage it to the advantage of yourself as a PM, your client and your company. In my experience, the effect of scope creep is also very client dependent. Establish that deep, collaborative relationship with your client early on, so you can steer it in a cooperative direction throughout the project lifecycle.
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Written by Shelby Hoke, Project Manager and resident scope creep police