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Avoiding Project Failure: Fighting Scope Creep

Eddie Carrillo
Eddie Carrillo

All is well. Your week's agenda is set—projects, deadlines, meetings and appointments, life outside of freelancing.

But then you get an email. In it, you find a variation of this dreaded sentence: “You know what would be great?” Your client thought of a tiny little thing they’d like you to add to their project. But that turns into two. Then an edit here. An edit there. And so on.

Suddenly your planned-out week isn’t as planned out as you thought. Also, since you’re (likely) not getting paid more for “small” changes, your work is less profitable because you’re taking more time. This can often happen while working as a freelancer. It’s called scope creep, and it can be one of the primary causes of project failure.

What is scope creep?

Let’s start with scope. Scope is the work that you’re expected to deliver, and it should be documented. The work agreement would include specific requirements, deadlines, and deliverables. If you’re putting together a 15-slide executive presentation for a client, your scope could include:

  • Requirements and specifications for the presentation
  • Actual presentation file
  • Delivery deadline
  • Any accompanying notes or tools for your client

Scope creep is adding on additional items, features, or requirements to previously agreed-upon projects without making necessary changes to project documentation, timeline, or financial compensation. Some types of scope creep include over-editing, adding extra deliverables, or overcomplicating processes.

Scope creep is bad for freelancers doing projects, but it’s also bad for clients. It can easily lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, missed deadlines, or even overall project failure. This is why it’s important for freelancers to effectively fight scope creep and avoid falling into common mishaps. But how?

5 recommendations to fight scope creep and stay on track

1. Identify project goals and requirements and put them into written words

Scope creep is something that tends to creep up on you late, hence the name. But you can take preventative action ahead of time so that you aren’t hit hard at the end.

Start with a contract and consider putting together a Statement of Work (SoW). An SoW is a document that defines all aspects and requirements of your project. It details the landscape of the project before you execute it. SoWs are a must for large projects, but if your projects are smaller, a light version is still highly recommended. Written documentation will help keep you aligned with your client long-term as your project progresses.

 2. Consider using a pricing model

Sometimes it’s difficult to predict how large a project will ultimately be. When your client is looking for you to meet a particular objective that does not necessarily depend on the quantity of work, it’s smart to provide your client a pricing model and build the contract that way.

If, for example, you’re tasked with putting together a B2B White Paper, and the final product could land anywhere between 20 and 30 pages, charge by word count or by page count, so that if the project turns out longer than originally expected, you’re getting compensated fairly for the length and duration of work.

3. Create a plan ahead of time for scope changes 

It would be naïve to think that projects will always go as planned, even with those above steps put in place. In reality, projects are often molded and adjusted and tweaked and twisted throughout their lifecycles. Things change, and that’s okay. What’s important is to have change control processes in place. When a client is looking to make a change, it comes down to 4 components:

  • Proposing the change. What needs to change? Why should it be implemented?
  • Calculating the impact. Is there a financial impact? Will deadlines need to be pushed?
  • Making the decision. Does it still make sense to make the change given the impact calculations?
  • Signing off on the change. Are both parties content with the new plan of action?  

Having this process established prior to starting a project will save both your client and yourself headaches as you work together.

4. Make effective communication a priority

Another headache saver: communication. Communicating effectively is a majorly important skill in any industry, but particularly important with client relationships. Active listening, creating open avenues for questions, setting meetings when necessary, and asking for feedback are all vital pieces of effective communication that can help you ensure your projects are running smoothly and as planned.

5. Be transparent 

One reason scope creep can lead to project failure is because many of us have the habit of taking on a heavy workload and a desire to please our clients. Because we’re used to tight deadlines and juggling multiple projects, we brush off added scope and tell clients that we can still meet original deadlines. Often, we can. But working this way will inevitably lead to the unfortunate moment that a deadline is missed.

Not meeting a deadline is a project failure—and it looks like a project failure on your end. Instead of risking this situation, be transparent about added work scope, the importance of documenting changes, and building systems with your client that encourage transparency and set you up for success.

Keeping scope creep at bay

A proactive approach to scope creep will save you money, time and minimize the risk of project failure. Projects are living and breathing things—there’s always a chance that requirements will need to change. But make sure those changes don’t come out of your pocket—bringing your clients up to speed with these five recommendations will help you keep scope under control and continue being a successful freelancer.


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