We call it “scope creep,” that inevitable change in project scope that adds more time, more effort, and just more to the service your business devotes to a client’s project. Scope creep arises from not knowing what you don’t know and later discover during the project. Let it go unchecked and you’ll find yourself working at a loss. For instance, in building renovation, the contractor may discover an interior wall that used to be an exterior wall covered in asbestos siding. That discovery mandates additional time and expense for proper removal of the toxic material. Another service provider may find that a client assumes a service not otherwise specified in the contract.

The trick is to manage project scope despite such unforeseen add-ons to the work. That entails defining the project as clearly as possible at the outset. Set your boundaries. Specify what is and is not included in the agreement for service. Be cognizant of a client’s assumption that if something isn’t excluded, then it must be included.

Lacking a crystal ball that actually works, a project manager must master the arts of negotiation, analysis, and informed decisiveness. QuickBase sets out three options for managing project scope: 1) Swap a requested change for a contracted deliverable; 2) offer to bundle requested changes into an extra service added on to the contract for additional fee (and extended deadline); and, 3) develop and implement a formal change process.

Before deciding which option works best, you must first determine whether the change is reactive or requested. A reactive change is required to correct a problem, such as a technical failure, resource problem, funding shortage, etc. Such changes don’t allow businesses the option to decline, unless the project will be abandoned. Requested changes are just that: alterations in the scope of services or deliverables being provided. These changes may arise from new information, advancements in technology, new ideas, changes in perspective, etc. Such changes usually result from client demands. While the vendor may be tempted to incorporate small changes into the project scope at no additional fee, those small changes add up quickly to swallow unpaid hours of effort, break deadlines, and demolish project budgets.

When confronted with a scope change, consider these four conditions before determining your course of action:
1. Value and priority
2. Timing
3. Cost
4. Impact.

Those four considerations affect the project and your business and should be limited by the boundaries of what you’re willing to accept.

Of course, the best way to manage scope creep is to rein it in from the get-go. As stated earlier, this means carefully setting the project boundaries. This involves understanding the client’s requirements for the project and the project’s requirements for completion—not at all the same thing. Writing for Liquid Planner, Tim Clark advises against “gold plating,” which is “a tendency… to over-deliver on the scope.” Gold plating falls under the losing scenario of under-promising and over-delivering—the insidious “added value” concept that undermines profitability.

Scope creep isn’t all bad. Compile a list of requested changes and the time and costs associated with their delivery to offer the client another contract for the service. Says Clark, “Your scope creep then becomes the customer’s cost creep.”