Scope Creep: How to Prevent a Major Source of Project Failure

word cloud highlighting scope

Why do projects go wrong? One major reason is scope creep. Stakeholders keep adding work for the team, without providing the extra resources they need, or enough time to do it. In the end, something has to give, and sometimes that results in an obvious project failure.

This is scope creep, and we need to stop it.

What is Scope Creep?

At some point early in the development of a project, we need to establish the scope of that project.

The Scope of project is either the breadth and depth of:

  • What we commit to produce (the product perspective)
  • What we need to do (the work, or activity, perspective)

Once we have committed to this, secured a budget and resources, and agreed to a schedule, any extra work now adds to our load. And, if that extra work arrives without control, we see the scope creeping up. That is what we call scope creep.

Why does Scope Creep Happen?

Sure, scope creep can happen because:

  • Stakeholders are greedy, opportunistic, or capricious, trying to squeeze ever more out of your project.
  • Maybe they are mean or cantankerous, and just want to make your life as hard as possible.
  • Or they simply do not understand the purpose and scope of your project.

But, most often, what you see as extra scope is, to them, just a restatement of what you have already committed to. How can this be so?

This happens when you do not define scope clearly enough. How you specify your scope matters, and if you are loose In your statements, this ambiguity leads to:

  • A stakeholder (quite reasonably) saying: ‘Here’s this thing, and it is quite clearly included in your statement of scope’
  • While the project team (equally reasonably) might say: ‘We cannot do that, because it is quite clearly not included in your statement of scope’

What’s the Problem with Scope Creep?

This graph illustrates the way the level of completion of many typical projects will grow, from zero to complete.

A graph showing level of completion from zero to complete.

At the same time, we use up the resources we have available, to help us deliver our project. So, they go from 100 percent to zero. We can illustrate this on the same chart…

Graph showing level of completion increasing and resources remaining decreasing.

You’ll see on the illustration, at roughly one-third of the way through our project (when we might move from planning into delivery), we start to burn through our resources quickly.

Therefore, beyond this point, our ability to meet the resource requirements, to adapt to changes – like scope creep – will diminish rapidly. As a result, we can best protect our project by locking in scope, as early, and as firmly, as possible.

What is the Solution to Scope Creep?

If the main cause of scope creep is ambiguity (let’s not call it ‘sloppiness’) in the way you define your scope, the solution becomes clear.

Step One is to define the boundary of your scope with precision.

Work as hard as you can to not only:

  • State clearly what is in scope
  • State equally clearly what is out of scope (‘exclusions’)

Work particularly hard to find and resolve the edge cases. These are the things that could be reasonably interpreted as in scope or out of scope. For each of them, work with your stakeholders in the definition stage to definitively place them (and record them) as in scope or out of scope.

When we move from the Definition Stage to the Planning Stage, we can make our scope statement precise and definitive, by using a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) or a Product Breakdown Structure (PBS). The bottom tier of these offers a complete statement of in scope work or products.

Step Two is to secure sign-off for your precisely defined scope statement

Take your statement of scope and exclusions to the client, boss, sponsor, steering group, or key stakeholders who have authority. Explain what your project will set out to achieve – and what it will not. If they are happy for you to deliver everything that you define as ‘in scope’ and nothing you state to be ‘out of scope’, ask for a formal sign-off.

This will give you ‘scope lock’.

Can the scope change in future? Yes, of course.

Now when someone comes to you and says, ‘could you just…’, you have a clear baseline from which to determine whether their request is in scope, along with a signature to back you up.

Yes, they could trump that authorization with the demands of someone more senior. But, if they do, your baseline is a strong starting place from which to negotiate either:

  • The additional budget and time you need
  • The risk and quality implications of proceeding without extra time or budget
  • The things you may be able to cut from your scope to make room for the new requests


Scope creep is a major risk that can derail even the best-planned projects. By taking the time upfront to precisely define and document the boundaries of your project scope, and securing formal stakeholder sign-off, you establish a clear baseline. This enables you to effectively assess any future change requests and negotiate for the additional resources needed to accommodate them.

Remember, the earlier you lock in your scope, the more you protect your project from the insidious threat of scope creep. As a project manager, making scope management a top priority is one of the most powerful things you can do to keep your projects on track and set them up for success.

Related Content

Back to Basics: Why do Projects Fail?

Avoiding Root Causes of Troubled Projects

From Opportunity to Project Scope: Bridging the Gap for Successful Project Delivery

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Written by Mike Clayton
Dr. Mike Clayton Mike Clayton is a Project Manager. He is founder of and presenter of the successful Project Management YouTube Channel, OnlinePMCourses. Contact Mike by email:
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