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Suffering From Scope Creep? Here's How to Beat It Forever

Scope creep...Do those two little words send a chill down your spine? I promise you’re not alone. Anyone who’s worked at an agency knows that scope creep is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Scope creep (also known as project creep, feature creep and kitchen sink syndrome) is when a project grows way beyond its anticipated size. I’ve seen it drive project managers and creatives to the brink of insanity.

The story usually goes like this:

  1. You meet a new client and agree on a project and price. Everything seems perfectly peachy.
  2. The size of the project gradually increases. There are difficulties you didn’t expect, and warning bells are ringing. But you want to please the client as it will mean more work down the line, so you plough on anyway.
  3. You finally finish but the client doesn’t like the outcome. They want endless revisions, and keep changing their mind about design or copy.
  4. When the project is completed at last, you realise it’s taken twice the time and resources you originally budgeted for. But it’s a fixed price in the contract, so what can be done?
  5. You hand over the work grudgingly, pour yourself a whisky, and prepare for the whole nightmare to repeat itself soon - that’s agency life, right?

Meanwhile, your ‘good clients’ (the undemanding ones) end up receiving substandard work because your time has been all sucked up. Sound familiar?

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Trust me, it doesn't have to be this way.

Why Does Scope Creep Happen?

Serious scope creep can cause stress, fatigue and wild emotions. You might be tempted to blame or demonise your clients. Don’t they know they’re asking the impossible with this last minute revision? Why are they trying to make my life hell?

But these negative perceptions are generally misguided. Your clients are not evil, inconsiderate jerks - at least most of the time. They’re just human beings who are passionate about their business, and want to know they’ve made the right investment.

So why does scope creep happen? Your client may not be helping the situation, but it can often be traced back to causes at the agency end:

  • Misunderstanding the client’s business goals
  • Miscommunication about project scope
  • Failing to establish a feedback process
  • Leaving key details out of the contract
  • Failing to set revision rules
  • Gold plating by team members

Like any disease, prevention is the best cure for scope creep! Practice these 6 project management steps and get ready to dazzle clients with your professionalism.

Step 1 - Develop a Shared Business Vision

The crucial first step is understanding your client’s business goals. What do they want to achieve from this project? If you’re building them a website, what are they expecting in terms of ROI? Do they want a 20% increase in online sales? Without these objectives, both parties are directionless (and your client is more likely to be dissatisfied with any outcome).

Once their business goals are crystal clear, discuss how to achieve them. Your client might have a firm, concrete idea of what your agency should create - and this idea might be terrible. Or they have a bunch of conflicting visions and they want to incorporate them all. It’s important to be honest and give them constructive criticism during this stage.

I know critiquing a client’s ideas is tough, but remember that you are the expert (and they may need a gentle reminder of this). Your client wouldn’t question the diagnosis of a doctor, or tell an electrician how to fix a circuit. If their ideas won’t work, be sure to explain why so they truly understand. Then offer brilliant, creative alternatives.

Ultimately you need to develop a shared vision with your client, where you’re in complete agreement about the approach and outcomes. Being a ‘yes man’ and simply agreeing to their terms is a recipe for disaster. If your visions can’t be harmonised, think twice about accepting the project.

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Step 2 - Define the Project Scope

Boom! You’ve collaborated with the client and formed a shared creative vision, along with achievable business goals. Everyone is excited. Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty details.

You need to produce a scope plan for your client - which identifies the project benefits, objectives, deliverables, key milestones and the number of revisions allowed. A Gantt chart or visual timeline may be helpful, so they know exactly what to expect. A detailed plan will form part of your insurance against scope creep.

You also need to prepare for every conceivable risk. What could go wrong during each stage or component? Determine the probability of those risks occurring and the impact each will have on deliverables and timelines. Some find it helpful to break these risks into low-level, medium-level and high-level categories. Once you’ve categorised your project risks systematically, you’ll want to assign potential actions and resources.

Finally, define your communication plan. How often does the client expect progress reports? At what stages will you need input from the client? Who will be their key point of contact?

Step 3 - Get the Pricing Right

Money. It’s the whole reason scope creep sucks. You want to ensure that the hours and resources you spend are compensated, and lock in a decent profit on top of that.

There are several factors at play here. Your pricing plan will partially depend on the nature of your agency, it’s size, reputation and previous work. It may also be adjustable based on the client’s budget and expectations. But the real trick to pricing is breaking your project down into its smallest possible constituent parts - and accounting for all of these.

How long will it take to achieve the specific tasks within each deliverable? Which team member is responsible for each one? What kind of resources are needed? Your pricing should not only factor in time, but also the value of the staff involved.

For example, if a website require 10 hours of work from your most senior designer, you might need to assign a unique hourly rate for their components. Project management software like WorkflowMax can simplify this process greatly, by allowing you to input rates for individual team members and calculate project quotes accordingly. You can also create quote templates, so if you’ve done a similar job previously you can save yourself time and effort.

Step 4 - Sign the Dotted Line

Brilliant - you’ve defined a comprehensive project scope and priced it appropriately. Now you need to create all the necessary documentation. It’s critical that you get everything in writing. Never rely on a verbal contract, no matter how awesome your client is.

Depending on the project size, you might seek legal advice before drawing up any agreements. But generally speaking, here are some things your contract should include:

  • The project dates and duration
  • The full scope of the work
  • Price & payment terms
  • Feedback & revision rules
  • Pricing for additional work (e.g. last minute changes)
  • A termination clause in case one party wants out
  • Copyright information (if relevant)

I recommend reading through the contract with your client in person, emphasising the most important points. Both parties should retain a full copy of the contract. You’ll need to refer back to it if there’s any kind of dispute.

Step 5 - Use Project Management Tools

Everything is signed off - it’s time to get started on your project! But even the best laid plans can go awry. How do you ensure all tasks are completed within your predetermined timelines?

Many creatives are perfectionists which is pretty understandable. We all want to create awesome work, especially when we’re building our own professional portfolio. But there needs to be a limit - a respect for the timeline and what the client has actually requested. That’s why a key part of project management is making sure no one falls victim to the dreaded ‘gold plating tendency’, where you keep perfecting something until it’s more than the client asked (or paid) for.

one_year_project_management.jpgBy implementing project management software like WorkflowMax across your agency, you can automatically track the time your staff spend on each task. WorkflowMax can calculate how much money has been spent based on their assigned hourly rates. These tools are invaluable for monitoring progress.

Project managers - you’ll still need to stay vigilant at all times, and refer back to your risk management strategies if delays or problems arise. And if all goes well, you’ll soon have a finished project for your delighted client.

Step 6 - Learn to Say No

Sometimes, despite taking every precaution, your client will keep pushing your boundaries. Many won’t bother to read the contract (we’re all human - how many times have you clicked yes on an Apple agreement without reading it through?).

But often it’s because although they understand your limitations, they’re emotionally invested in their business to the point of blind stubbornness. This is especially true of small companies, who cannot afford to get disappointing results for their money.

With tensions running sky high it can be hard to say no to a passionate client. But this is an essential skill if you want your agency to survive. If they cannot be convinced, make sure you refer back to the contract and any incurred fees for extra work. If it’s a request you haven’t anticipated you should still put a price on it - here’s a handy guide for telling clients you need more money.

And if it’s an impossible or unachievable request… you’ll just have to say no.

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So what are you waiting for agencies? It’s time to kick scope creep to the curb. Creatives, project managers and clients can work in harmony - it just takes a little vigilance, forward thinking and communication.

If you’d like more information about handling client relationships, check out 10 things you’re not doing to nurture your clients, or how to get to fourth base with your clients.