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What Is Scope Creep & How To Avoid It

You’re halfway through designing a website and you receive feedback from your client to make some changes. A small tweak here and a small tweak there, because “It won’t take long” or better yet, they say “It should be really easy to implement”…

And in most cases, this is true. The “small” changes or modifications would help make the final website better. But they can quickly add up, sometimes equating to be an extra few weeks of unpaid work for your team. 

It isn’t uncommon for web designers to decide to go the extra mile to impress their clients. After all, keeping clients happy is always the goal. But, if you’ve ever suddenly ended up way behind on your schedule, panicking and failing to get that sweet final payment to clear, you’ve become the victim of what is known as scope creep

What Exactly is Scope Creep?

Scope creep occurs when changes or updates are added to a project beyond what was initially agreed upon, resulting in uncontrollable growth of the scope of the project. 

Of course, changes are inevitable in every web design project. Yet there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy changes, the ones that would make your project far too large or complex. The process is often subtle, i.e. it creeps up on you and on the agreed scope, hence the name – scope creep.

But scope creep can come in a variety of forms, not just small changes. It can also come in the form of requests for bigger changes, such as your client asking you to change the whole homepage structure that you designed. To them it might seem like what they’re asking for is reasonable, but to you, it probably means that the last few weeks were literally nothing more than a waste of time.

Why is Scope Creep So Dangerous?

If you’re working on a fixed-price project, it’s easy to understand what the immediate implications are – more work for free. However, scope creep does not just mean extra work for free, it has a number of other consequences. 

Scope creep can put extra pressure on your entire team, who would find it difficult to meet the original deadlines. Even when changes that have a significant impact on workload are introduced, clients will often still expect the project to remain on track. This in turn can affect your team’s mental and physical health in a detrimental way, increasing stress that in the worst-case scenario could result in employee burnout. Overworked employees might grow resentful and start looking for another job. 

At the same time, severe employee burnout may lead to your project completely stalling out. That being said, in general, the biggest side-effect of scope creep is that the project just drags on for weeks if not months on end without you ever being able to finalize anything and collect the final payment from your client for all the work you’ve done.

Finally, if you are required to do extra work and meet unreasonable deadlines, the whole quality of your work can suffer. This way, you risk damaging the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build…

Keep Scope Creep in Check By Keeping Clients Under Control

If you’ve done work as a web design freelancer or within an agency, you are likely to have experienced scope creep. Some amount of scope creep can happen to any project, no matter how well-designed the project is or how highly qualified the team is. 

However, there are steps that you can take in order to avoid it fully overtaking your project.

1. Write a Clear Statement/Scope of Work

You can’t expect to keep something within its scope if you aren’t quite sure what this scope is, to begin with. So make sure you understand your clients’ goals, vision, and expectations. The requirements, timeline, budget, and responsibilities (who is doing what) should be clearly outlined in the statement or scope of work.

The scope of work can be used both externally, with your client, but also internally, within the project team itself. In other words, a jointly agreed scope of work allows you to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 

It may sound simple, but a huge part of scope creep stems precisely from a poorly defined scope of work or lack thereof altogether.

Things to keep in mind when writing your scope of work:

  1. Make sure the language is simple and unambiguous to avoid any possible misunderstanding – especially if your client is not very familiar with web design. 
  2. Make sure to include a clause that clearly states that any work your client may require outside of the initially agreed scope of the project will incur them an additional charge (perhaps at a standard hourly rate even if you generally don’t charge hourly, just to account for the odd extra 5-10 hours per project).

By keeping in mind these 2 fundamental concepts when writing your scope of work, you protect yourself from potentially demanding clients that may try to take advantage of you along the way and avoid unnecessary conflicts surrounding the final cost. 

2. Plan for Changes Ahead of Time

Above all, it’s important to distinguish between adjustments that are harmless and take very little time to implement and adjustments that would change the project deadline entirely.

It would be naive to expect there to be no requests for changes whatsoever, whether from your client, your team, or even you personally. But you need to make sure you have a proper plan in place for how to handle any proposed changes. 

For starters, establish who will be in charge of approving such changes – would it be you? Would it be a project manager? Or would it just be your client assigning work directly to your team? We really don’t recommend letting your client have a direct line of access to just add new tasks to your team’s plate because it wouldn’t be unheard of for something like this to go unnoticed until the end. Once the client is familiar with the protocol for giving feedback on the progress of their website, everyone can be on the same page and the results are transparency and better communication among everyone involved.

3. Use Atarim – Software Is On Your Side

For everything we covered above, and to top it all off – we highly recommend making use of a project management solution that allows you to properly keep track of everything that happens during the initial web design process as well as afterwards. 

Why keep tasks & clients separate from the actual website you’re working on? 

One of the main reasons we built Atarim was when our founder, Vito Peleg, grew his agency and realized a recurring issue that kept coming up, again and again, that was really holding him back from growing. Especially when juggling multiple projects at a time, the inability to properly keep track of everything, discuss changes with clients, and get your team involved resulted in projects that took far longer than expected. 

Simply put, most clients just don’t know how to express themselves. They don’t know what really goes into building a website, what each section is called. All they know is what they currently see and whatever they’re picturing in their head.

With Atarim’s Visual Feedback feature, not only can you help get those ideas out of their head but you can also keep track of every single change in a single dashboard, including tracking the extra time the ones that added to the scope of the project took so that you can bill them back to the client. 

Breaking down changes into individual tasks and action items not only helps you do exactly what the client wants, it helps keep your team focused and reduces project completion time by an average of 50%. 

When using Atarim, just remember to enforce communication through the set channels. For instance, if a client sends you a message via Facebook Messenger or sends a long email, it’s important to refer them back to the agreed method of communication. Even if it feels like you risk annoying the client, assure them that they’ll thank you in the long term because using Atarim to communicate with you is what’s going to help move the project forward and help you do your best work instead of spending hours finding information spread across 5 different tools.  

4. Learn To Say “No”

Clients and other people involved in the web design process might be more likely to make unreasonable demands if they perceive weak leadership or lack of experience on your end. This is what makes it even more important for you to stand up and not be afraid to say no to unreasonable client demands that would put the project and your ability to deliver work to this client (and all of your other clients) at risk.

If a client or boss is asking you to take on additional tasks that can inflate the scope of the project, simply try to explain in a professional, but firm way that these tasks go beyond the agreed scope of work and therefore affect the timeframe and cost that they incur.

5. Steer Clear of Gold Plating

Another widespread misconception is that scope creep is always caused by the client themselves.

This actually isn’t always the case and it isn’t uncommon for scope creep to come from your end. In fact, gold plating is a practice where you or your team just keep working on the client’s website in order to make marginal improvements without the explicit approval from your client. In general, this is the result of poor project management and planning.

A great example of gold plating is when you keep adding additional work onto your own plate just to impress the client or exceed their expectations. Now there are situations in which this makes sense and obviously, the client isn’t going to object to the additional effort you put in, but this will result in scope creep and can negatively affect your business.

What causes gold plating?

Usually, gold plating can be attributed to a desire to please the customer, assuming that they will be delighted to see additional features that they didn’t even ask for in the first place. However, a real risk here is that instead of ecstatic, your client might end up disappointed and not approve of the additional features. They might even ask you to redo the project according to their original specifications, which again, leads to extra free work for you. After all, they didn’t ask for the changes you made, so they are unlikely to pay you to remove them.

Another issue to be on the lookout for is perfectionism, either from yourself or anyone in your team. Perfectionism is among the top causes of scope creep. There are the so-called chronic gold platers who will keep on pushing for all sorts of minor tweaks that should perfect the project. They are usually very hardworking and enthusiastic about the work. 

A neat way to deal with chronic gold platers is to encourage them to express their ideas and visions in the early stages of planning, where the scope of the project is still being established, i.e. before the budget is determined. By doing so, their ideas can be incorporated at the very start.

Summary – Avoid Scope Creep & Finish Projects Faster

Scope creep is inevitable with some clients but if you don’t plan for it and without the proper systems in place to deal with it (such as Atarim ? ) it can cause the project to end in complete disaster.  

With the advice in this guide, you’ll be on the right track to prevent scope creep from affecting your work in the first place and minimize the effects in the event that it still does. 

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