How to Deal with Scope Creep

scope creep
Have you ever dealt with a client that kept tacking on new tasks and features to their project? First they want a logo, then some business cards, and then all new stationary. You said, “Okay, I can add on a couple of things—No problem.” But, by the end you realized you really should have charged more for all that extra work. If you’ve experienced a similar scenario then you were a victim of scope creep.

It can happen to anyone, even those that have been freelancing for years. Everything is down in writing and both you and the client understand the scope of the project. However, somewhere down the road everything about the project is changing and you’re left wondering how things got to where they are.

I had a project recently that inspired this post where I was a victim of scope creep. The initial project scope was creating a template along with updating some others, but not actually doing the design or CSS work. I planned my time, project length, and estimated a cost for the work accordingly. As we went on and I delivered the template with some updates, it became clear the scope would expand. Now I was looking at creating all the templates and applying all the styling. I was okay with that. There was still time and I actually spent some unbillable time teaching myself more jQuery. At this point, the templates were done according to the original design and applied to the pages already created in the system. I was no longer planning days of working on the site, more like an hour here or there.

Since I wasn’t in charge of doing the initial design of the site, I hadn’t realized the design had changed. Not a lot, but enough to warrant redoing a bunch of my work in laying out the templates and styling the CSS. I also found myself in charge of formatting most of the content on the site. This meant spending time formatting text and editing pages instead of working on the global files. Finally, I was squeezing in the additional time needed for the project with other projects I had already signed up to work on. My overall conclusion of the project was that it was becoming difficult, but not for any one reason other than scope creep.

How I Dealt With Scope Creep

Handling a project that seems like it would never end (cue the Lamb Chop song) is difficult when it’s your first rodeo, and you get blindsided. In this case I’ve worked on never ending projects before and kind of had an idea it was going to go this direction, just no concrete evidence. What’s most important is communicating with the client. If you keep working on the project according to what they’re asking for, you’re going to find yourself up shit’s creek. Instead, take a breath, put the project away for awhile (a day, an hour, whatever you can spare) and look at the overall progress. Have a conversation with the client. You may find they didn’t realize how much more they were asking for, or didn’t have a full understanding of all the moving pieces. The latter is what happened in my case.

Fortunately I didn’t take a financial hit on this project. We had agreed to work on an hourly basis, though normally I prefer a flat fee. In this case, it worked out because I was only losing time I could have spent on other projects, instead of both time and money. I also put the project away for a day and focused on others that needed to get done. This allowed me some space to find solutions I wouldn’t have originally thought of.

Where I Failed

I definitely had failure in this project, and it’s important to write it down and find solutions for the future. First off, after every project I ask the customer to fill out a project review form, and I also do the same internally. I haven’t yet done it for this project, but it’s on my list.

Until then, these are the three ways I failed in this project:

  1. I needed to better understand the client’s needs.
  2. I needed a better plan for who was in charge of what.
  3. I needed to have a call with the client and figure out what was going on.

You can see it was mostly about communicating with the client and just sorting things out. In this case, the time difference was a bit much. While lately we’ve found another way of communicating, actually getting on the phone was tough. Historically I’ve disliked being on the phone because I did support work and all I did all day was be on the phone. Nowadays I’m finding it more and more useful to talk it out, running through tasks that need clarification. I have a weekly call with one of my clients, and it’s a nice change to be able to talk through an issue, especially when my furry coworkers are useless at helping me brainstorm.

Now it’s your turn…

Are you in the middle of a project that just won’t quit, or thinking one is heading that way? I would love to be your sounding board and help other freelancers not get stuck dealing with scope creep.