5-second summary
  • Scope creep, which occurs when the work required to complete a project exceeds the work the team originally planned for, can be quite harmful – but it’s also very common.
  • A culture of transparency and good change management can mitigate the worst effects of scope creep, but it’s not avoidable altogether.
  • Scope creep does offer some benefits, sometimes enabling creativity and innovation, and/or resulting in a better end product than originally planned.

Project managers spend most of their waking hours wrangling volatile project elements: exacting stakeholders, ever-changing due dates, a flu outbreak on the dev team. The best in the biz are pros at keeping projects on the rails – but sometimes, you need to build a whole new track to get where you want to go.

Train metaphors aside, expanding project requirements – commonly known as scope creep – are an inevitable part of life, for every role, on every team. Without a doubt, scope creep causes stress, delays project delivery, and strains budgets. But it can also serve as a kind of canary in a coal mine, flagging potential issues or disruptions – and chances are, your project will be better for it.

Here’s how to set yourself up for success, mitigate the worst outcomes scope creep can throw at you, and maybe even reap some benefits from those inevitable bumps in the road.

What is scope creep?

Let’s lay some groundwork here: The scope of a project is “the work that must be done in order to deliver a product” according to its defined functions and features. Ideally, all stakeholders will be on the same page about how that work will get done and how the team will define success. Scope creep happens when the project’s actual scope eclipses those expectations.

scope creep defined

Scope creep refers to the phenomenon of a project’s requirements increasing over the project’s lifecycle, especially when small-scale change management practices aren’t in place.

Scope creep notoriously causes delivery delays, overspending, roadblocks, and resource allocation issues, which can in turn have a ripple effect on other projects, budgets, and resources.

Simply put, scope creep is no dang fun. And it can lead to real systemic problems, not just temporary stress for one team. Everyone should take steps to avoid it, and we’ll go over those. But it’s not quite the enemy it’s made out to be, and we’ll talk about that too.

What causes scope creep?

How to be an amazing project team in a changing world

The best way to ensure the scope of your project will creep up on you? Poor planning and bad communication. These shortcomings can happen to the best of us, but even the most organized, connected teams fall victim to scope creep, due to circumstances beyond their control.   

Poor planning, or “sh*t happens”

A good project manager puts a lot of work into the various elements of project planning: reflecting on the project scope, organizing the people and resources needed to get a job done as efficiently as possible, setting and monitoring a budget, and maintaining a timeline. Failing to account for any one of these elements is a recipe for scope creep.

So the foresight and organizational skills needed to execute on all those moving parts are major – but your project manager is probably not psychic. It’s a hard truth of project management (and, you know, life) that surprises happen and circumstances can change on a whim. Even the most in-sync, up-to-speed teams will encounter obstacles they didn’t expect: the client requests additional functionality. A technical hiccup halts production for a week. A vendor issue sabotages your budget.

All this is to say: in addition to organizational and planning skills, project managers benefit from flexibility and agility, as well as a keen eye for the early signs of a project off-kilter.

Poor communication, or “juggling a team of human beings”

It’s one thing to meticulously plan the ins and outs of your project; it’s quite another to socialize those plans and gain buy-in across a diverse set of communicators. The best-laid plans aren’t worth much if there are members of your team who don’t know what they’re responsible for, what to do if they encounter a bump in the road, or how much budget they’re allowed to spend – especially if they don’t feel like they participated in those decisions.

This is especially true of newly formed or ad-hoc project teams, who are often at a disadvantage because they aren’t as familiar with each other’s professional backgrounds or communication styles. The project manager, or another designated leader, is tasked with establishing a culture of transparency, visibility, and psychological safety on the project team from the get-go, so when the going gets tough…it’s not because somebody was out of the loop.

We’ll talk more about communication strategy in the next section, but the Atlassian Team Playbook is a great resource for those times when you’re trying to sort through a spaghetti-nest of logistics and you need to get a group of teammates and stakeholders on the same page.

Scope creep example: Denver International Airport

Arguably the most infamous real-world example of scope creep is the 1995 Denver International Airport automated baggage handling system fiasco (say that five times fast). 

In short, the newly built facility planned to implement a large-scale software system for automating baggage handling. What was supposed to be a groundbreaking solution to unprecedented passenger volume ended up $560 million over budget, 16 months late, and functioning on a much smaller scale than its original design. 

This surprisingly compelling 2008 case study offers a thorough analysis, but in short, the Denver airport example highlights a series of missteps, including an extreme underestimation of the project’s complexity and a failure to incorporate stakeholder feedback, that all added up to a massive case of scope creep.

Setting your team up for success

So, accepting that curve balls will be thrown our way and interpersonal communication is not infallible, what are some best practices to maximize the potential for a successful scoping experience]?

Establish a culture of transparency and visibility

What does psychological safety mean, anyway?

Open communication and psychological safety are necessary ingredients for any healthy, successful team, and they also mitigate the risk of scope creep. When team members feel heard and empowered to share their thoughts and opinions, they’re more likely to identify red flags that could lead to scope creep.

Project teams should also plan each move and document each decision affecting their end goal:

Build a realistic project schedule

Rely on knowledgable stakeholders to determine the parameters of your project schedule, prioritizing accuracy over optimism. A thoughtfully constructed project timeline serves as both an action plan and an instrument of accountability – and can help identify scope-creepy roadblocks you may encounter on your path.

Remember: your timeline should be revered as a single source of truth, but remain a living document to account for those inevitable twists and turns you’ll encounter along the way.

Practice good change management 

Speaking of twists and turns, those moments of uncertainty, where your project suffers a plot twist – those are the moments where scope creep blooms. Change management, then, is an important tool for managing unavoidable pivots – the better you plan for change, the easier it is to avoid that logistical sabotage.

We should point out here that, often, when we talk about change management strategy, it’s in the context of large-scale organizational change. But the same principles and processes apply to smaller-scale adjustments, like extending a budget or nixing a product feature: 

  • Spend time thinking about the reason for the change, and what would happen without it.
  • Discuss a plan for communicating the change to stakeholders – how will you frame the message? What channels will you use to convey it?
  • Decide on a plan of action for implementing the actual change. When will it happen? Will roles and responsibilities change as a result? Will any other projects be affected by the change? Will you ask for feedback from stakeholders once the change has taken effect?

Once you’ve documented your change management process, you can turn to that agreed-upon plan of action when your project hits a snag and scope creep is waiting in the shadows.

Scope creep’s silver linings

What does a culture of innovation really look like?

Putting all these strategies into practice will go a long way to protect your project from the most debilitating effects of scope creep. And, a little food for thought: avoiding scope creep at all costs could result in missed opportunities. When you expand the horizons of your project (in a thoughtful and well-documented way, of course!) you might just end up with a better result than you would have otherwise. Sometimes an inflated budget or extended time commitment is an investment rather than an unwanted cost. 

Plus, making room for a bit of scope creep can carve out space for creativity from your team. Maybe scope creep is part of the price of admission for a culture of innovation.

And if nothing else, even if scope creep drives your project completely off the rails…you’ll be left with some valuable lessons learned. And our deepest sympathies.

Scope creep isn’t quite the enemy you think it is