How to Ward off Dreaded 'Scope Creep'

In any IT project scope creep can act as a noxious weed, leading to project bloat, extra costs and time delays.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

August 7, 2017

6 Min Read
Shafat Qazi, BQE

The term “scope creep” refers to continuous growth in a project’s scope that occurs any time after it begins. While at first glance this might seem to be innocuous, as most projects do change, scope creep usually happens when processes are not well defined or controlled and causes projects to get off track.

The core problem with scope creep is that it sets a precedent. If developers agree to new capabilities that are outside of the original agreement, and do so without additional cost, then they’re impacting profit margins. Scope creep acts as a noxious weed, and once it’s planted it can be tough to eliminate. This of course does not mean that reasonable tweaks or adjustments should be denied or met with demands for more money. True scope creep means receiving requests that are unreasonable and require a considerable amount of work.

Creating a website is an example of an IT project that is rife with scope creep requests. Consider an original website design that offered the standard content as well as a simple form for collecting visitor information. During the design phase, perhaps the client’s marketing team wants to add a blog, social media integrations, or a shopping cart to the site. These are all extensions of the original scope that warrant additional costs and will push back the agreed-upon completion deadlines.

The challenge for IT is knowing how to best manage the project, the client’s expectations, and any change orders. Doing so will let them accommodate reasonable requests while having the structure and transparent communications in place that prevent unacceptable change orders that negatively impact profits and timelines.

Here are some steps IT firms can take to protect profitability and manage scope creep:

Define the project start and end dates. The end date for a project is one that’s “top of mind” for everyone on the team. It’s a crucial deadline, one that’s of course dependent on starting the project on time. While it’s a simple concept, an easy way to prevent scope creep is to ensure projects begin on time. Otherwise, the introduction of scope creep can derail the entire project, as the team won’t have the capacity to work with the change order and the client won’t like to hear that the project is already behind schedule.

Change orders are exponentially impactful as deadlines approach, so IT consultants must actively manage tasks while keeping an eye on their time. This provides management with context about project status, so they know if change orders can be weaved into the tasks or if there will be additional costs and an extended deadline.

Utilize structure for change requests. IT firms should agree on predefined steps that will occur internally and from the client in response to change orders. Establish these guidelines in the planning stages, and reiterate their importance throughout the project. The guidelines should provide a way for the client to clearly express their intent as well as the specific direction. Knowing the ultimate use and intent of a request provides IT with context so they can ensure that the change is the right choice. This prevents scope creep because the work is aligned with the client’s needs, and there’s less chance for miscommunication and needing to redo work. If the IT consultant did not ask for more information at the outset, then they might have to absorb the extra time and expense to make changes.

A structured and detailed change order process reduces misunderstandings, so IT firms should develop submission procedures that provide both sides with clear guidelines and direction. These procedures should help IT to understand the client’s intentions behind the requested change. In some cases, the client may not realize how their suggested change might not achieve the desired result, and IT would be in the dark if they simply took changes at face value and didn’t know the broader context. By adding structure to a traditionally casual process, IT can teach clients that changes should only be submitted after careful consideration and not presented on a whim.

Manage the time budget. The first signs of trouble on a project are often found in an employee’s time report. Unfortunately, many outdated time recording systems use manual processes or Excel files, so the inputting and calculating of billable time is highly error-prone. Proper timekeeping is vital, especially when it ties to project management, so there’s a correlation between hours spent on a project and specific measurable tasks.

As IT workers adhere to this task-based approach, they can develop analytics about completed project performance and use predictive analytics to show likely future results. This provides managers with valuable context. They can judge whether a certain change will result in a positive outcome or a negative one in terms of time spent and the client’s ultimate satisfaction with the result. The managers can not only optimize their team’s work, but also know in advance if additional costs should be added to the project.

Leverage transparent communication. Take the time to explain what the offered services and capabilities are at the offset of the project if you want to avoid scope creep. Firms should detail the exact services included in the agreement, so change orders that are outside of that scope can be denied without issue. Discussing the initial agreement starts the client-IT relationship on the right path, one that is based on transparent communication. The agreement could, for example, outline what interactions the developers might have with the client’s sales or marketing teams, or dozens of other similar arrangements and expectations. Communication acts as a deterrent for scope creep because it helps all involved to preemptively spot problems and fix them without an undue amount of time and money.

Communication means training the client’s interactions. If they’re late in approving technical specs or don’t respond to questions in a timely fashion, then they must understand how both of those actions/inactions will relate to an extended deadline. Some firms put clauses in contracts that dictate the hourly charges for client meetings, as these gatherings can run long and might require the attendance of several layers of IT staff. Without structure, IT firms will lose control over how their time is spent, which will then put the budget and performance at risk. To prevent clients from abusing the team’s time, IT teams can simply use the penalty of additional hourly charges. 

IT firms that employ these strategies for managing change can greatly lower the risks of scope creep. Building a connection between project management and time keeping, improving transparent communication, and managing expenses, IT firms can meet client needs on deadline without disrupting profits.

Shafat Qazi, Founder and CEO of BQE Software, is an engineer-turned-entrepreneur who created the award-winning time billing software ever, BillQuick, while still in college. He set out to make time tracking, billing, and project management easier for engineers as well as all service professionals and continues to perfect BQE Software products hands-on today.

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Guest Commentary

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