How to avoid scope creep and manage change requests faster

Cory Shrecengost
June 26, 2023
minute read
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Every organization has been plagued with a nasty bout of scope creep at some point—in fact, project managers say it’s the reason why 92% of projects fail.

But what is scope creep in project management?

Typically it goes something like this…

You start an exciting new project with a client. That might be freshening up your website or developing a new product. You, along with your client, determine how much the project will cost and set a timeline.

But as the project progresses, someone requests a change—the CEO decides he’d like to add additional features to the website, or another stakeholder wants to make some last-minute adjustments to the product before rollout.

Now your project team is faced with the challenge of implementing these adjustments while staying within the original budget and timeline. And the result is scope creep as the project expands beyond its initial range, and costs and timelines escalate.

This scenario is unfortunately too common—almost 50% of projects experience some level of scope creep!

The good news is you can manage it to keep your projects (and client relationships) on track. To help you, we’ll delve into what causes scope creep, how to manage scope creep, and most of all, how to avoid scope creep from happening in the first place.

What causes scope creep?

Poorly defined project scope

Without a clear understanding of what’s expected in a project, it’s easy for stakeholders or even people not directly involved with the project to make requests that fall outside the original scope.

These requests may seem minor or insignificant, but they can add up over time and lead to the expansion of the project beyond its original timeline. Unclear project scopes also make it difficult for project managers to track progress and manage changes effectively, which can lead to confusion, delays, and unnecessary costs.

Poor communication between stakeholders

When stakeholders aren’t aware of a project’s goals, requirements, or constraints, they might be more likely to make assumptions, suggest changes, or request additional features that fall outside of a project’s original plan.

On the flip side, if stakeholders don’t sufficiently communicate changes or updates to the project team, the team may continue to work with outdated requirements. This means more time wasted, more frustration, and sometimes more money spent.

Lack of commitment from stakeholders

If stakeholders don’t understand the importance of the project, or the project isn’t urgent to them, they’ll be less likely to invest in clearly articulating what they need or responding in a timely manner.

A couple of reasons could be because the stakeholders don’t see the immediate benefits of the project or they simply have other pressing concerns, but the results of this lack of engagement and commitment are drawn-out timelines and unhelpful or incomplete feedback.

Unclear roles and responsibilities

Failing to clearly define everyone’s roles and duties in a project leads to confusion and misunderstandings about who is responsible for what in the project.

When project team members are unsure about what they need to do, what they’re responsible for, or who they need to gain approvals from, they may take on tasks or make decisions that are outside their area of expertise or authority, leading to more scope creep and potential for errors.

What are the effects of scope creep in project management?

Increased costs

Time is money and when scope creep happens, not completing projects on time can easily eat up a budget.

More time spent on a project means more resources consumed, and the cost of those resources can add up quickly. In addition, there’s also the cost of lost productivity caused by shifting priorities as teams try to catch up to previously agreed-upon deadlines in the face of demand for new features and changes.

Delayed project completion

Scope creep can make your timelines unpredictable, quickly throwing off the schedules you've carefully planned out for your projects. It adds extra tasks that weren't included in your original timeline, pushing back milestones and pushing up the overall project completion time and chewing up more hours than you’d budgeted for.

Plus, when a project gets bigger, it naturally needs more resources to get done. Resources like time, money, and personnel may be scarce, and having to add extra tasks can make it even harder to find them.

Poor quality of deliverables

With extra tasks comes a greater risk of errors and lower standards of quality. When the scope of a project changes without proper resources or preparation, it's likely that you'll have to cut corners to accommodate the change.

This could mean reducing the quality of your materials or even leaving out features that were originally planned for, which can result in a product or service that isn’t up to par for your customers or other stakeholders.

Unhappy stakeholders

The combination of projects expanding beyond original scopes, completion delays, increased costs, and lack of clarity about project goals leads to frustration and dissatisfaction among stakeholders, whose expectations aren’t being met.

Eventually, these inefficiencies result in a lack of trust in the project team's ability to manage their work effectively, which can even impact future endeavors.

How to avoid scope creep

Establishing clear project goals and objectives

The best way to avoid scope creep is to eliminate any misunderstandings or disorganization early on by clearly defining the goals you’re working towards and getting everyone involved on the same page.

Here‘s how:

  • Define the purpose: This helps provide a general idea of what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and what success looks like.
  • Define scope: Establish the scope of work clearly, so that everyone has a solid idea of exactly what needs to be done for each part of the project at any given time. This will help keep important details from falling through the cracks when taking on new tasks or completing existing ones.
  • Create a timeline: Your timeline should include milestones and deadlines to help everyone stay on track so that your team can meet each goal by its deadline without running over schedule or budget.
  • Outline the process for changes: Establish how clients need to communicate and request changes beyond the scope of the project — such as a description of the change, schedule or timeline impact, costs, and signatures.

Setting expectations with stakeholders

Setting expectations is particularly important in project environments where there are multiple stakeholders involved in decision-making. To ensure a project stays on track, you need to be concerned about defining scope upfront. Here are some practical tips:

  • Establish workflows and processes: You and your stakeholders should be on the same page about how the process of bringing the project to life will work. There shouldn’t be any surprises along the way when it comes to steps, timelines, or approvals during the project. Be sure to document every single step along the way for reference.
  • Communicate early and often: Make sure stakeholders know when you expect to complete tasks, when they need to provide feedback or sign-off, etc. This way, there's no confusion about who is responsible for what or when something needs to get done.
  • Track progress in real-time: Tracking progress as you go provides visibility into what's going on so that issues can be addressed quickly and any necessary changes can be communicated clearly before things go too far off course.

Creating a change request process

Effective change request management gives you and your team a greater view of how projects are progressing, so you can make sure everything is running on schedule, set expectations with stakeholders ahead of time, and reduce the likelihood of scope creep occurring in the first place.

This process should cover all the details of how changes to projects will be handled, from who is responsible for approving changes to having a system to track those approved requests.

Here are some key steps you should keep in mind:

  • Establish who has authority over approving change requests: This could be the project manager, project sponsor, an executive stakeholder, or even all three. But assigning this role ensures that all change requests are reviewed by the appropriate parties before being approved or denied.
  • Establish a timeline for change requests: Set deadlines for submitting change requests to minimize last-minute adjustments and keep projects on schedule. Timelines should also include specific deadlines for gaining approval or disapproval and implementing approved changes.
  • Determine what needs to be changed: Whether you’re making a minor or drastic adjustment, the change should be clearly articulated and provide enough information for the people who will be ultimately signing off on it to make a decision. One way to streamline the change request process is to use a template. That way, the format is consistent and organized.
  • Determine the impact of the change: You'll need to evaluate how the change will affect the project's scope, timeline, budget, and resources. It's crucial to consider the potential risks and benefits of incorporating the change and ensure that it aligns with the project's overall goals. If you use a template, this information should all be detailed within the change request form.
  • Sign change requests without delay: Have a system in place to get your requests signed quickly and efficiently so that the project isn’t stalled by waiting for signatures. When multiple approvers are needed, this could be a lengthy process if you have to track people down manually. But you can save time by using an eSignature tool like Dropbox Sign to automate the process of sending requests and gathering approvals.
  • Communicate about the approved change request: If the change request is approved, communicate with all relevant stakeholders. You'll need to update the project plan and timeline, adjust the budget if necessary, and assign any new tasks or responsibilities resulting from the change.

Managing change requests efficiently with Dropbox Sign

Putting the steps in place to avoid scope creep is just half of the puzzle when it comes to change request management. It’s easy for the process of gaining approvals to drag, and going about it manually may only lead to more time and resources wasted.

But Dropbox Sign enables you to eliminate the manual steps involved with drafting, formatting, and signing approvals. With Dropbox Sign, you can upload a template of your change request form, add signer fields, and send the form off to whoever needs to approve it electronically. Whether you have one approver or twenty, you can also set a signer order if need be, so that each person signing has to do so in a specific sequence.

There’s no need to chase down signatures either—you’ll be able to activate automatic reminders or easily send reminders with a single click. Then, once the form is signed, you can view it and share it with all necessary parties.

Plus, instead of managing change requests in a disjointed system, the Dropbox Sign API helps you consolidate the work and integrate signature requests into your current workflows.

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