Last weekend I went to Target for some toothpaste. By the time I left the store, I was the proud new owner of a raincoat, a dinosaur shaped flower pot, some flannel PJs, a tube of hot pink lip gloss and some gummy bears. Oh, and toothpaste.  

Why am I telling you this? Because this, my friend, is scope creep.

I only planned on buying toothpaste and ended up needing a wheelbarrow to get everything home. 🤦🏻‍♀️

But I know I’m not alone in my unexpected shopping spree. Scope creep happens all the time. If you’ve ever made anything, you’ve probably experienced it. It can be the simple dinner that became a three-course meal or the PowerPoint project that became a full company rebranding.

Scope creep is a silent killer. It can take a project from on-track to “what the heck just happened” faster than you can say “hold up, we’re waaaaay over budget and no one has the time for this.”

Scope creep can be tough to spot, and even tougher to fend off. But it shouldn’t spook you. Next time you see it coming, try one of these tried and true ways to identify and prevent scope creep.  

Don’t get spooked

First off, scope creep isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Adding, subtracting, and juggling things around is a natural part of getting the job done 💪. You want to be in a place where your team is able to shift quickly after a round of feedback. So don’t shoo away new ideas when they come up, just make sure you’re making the necessary adjustments this new idea needs for support.

Time is finite. So when scope creep does happen, something will need to give. As requirements change, resource allocation needs to change too, whether that be time, budget, or shrinking the scope of other tasks within the project.

Set the definition of “done”

In a perfect world, scope creep would never be an issue because all parties are completely in sync. Perfectly aligned goals and vision don’t have to be a fantasy. At the start of any project, take some time to define “done” and make sure all participants are aligned on what that means.

Your team should agree on everything that the final deliverable will contain. Think about size, quantity, variety, and any maintenance work that will be required in the future. Is the project done when the timeline runs out, when the budget runs out, or when the deliverable is perfect?

Once everyone agrees on what “done” means, it’s a lot easier to show that a new requirement is out of scope. When the end goal is set in stone, it becomes easier to re-evaluate priorities, budget, or timeline to get the project back on track.

"Anchor" the project to something

Great projects start with great planning (obviously). When a project doubles in size halfway into it, it’s natural to feel like you’re lost at sea. To prevent your team from drifting, you need to anchor them to something ⚓. It’s not enough to have a quick chat –  having a physical document to refer back to will be your saving grace when things get bumpy. When it comes to creative work, a solid brief is the bedrock of a project. When you’re writing down the project terms, it’s not possible to be too specific. You want it to cover all of the bases and leave no room for error. My trick? Explain the project like you’re talking to a five year old (or your boss, same difference 😉).

Be honest. You can’t make magic happen

If you’re anything like me, you’re a total people pleaser 🙋🏻. The thought of telling someone “sorry, we can’t do that” makes me want to run and hide under my desk. But when it comes to project management, resources are finite. You can’t do more things without more time, especially if you’re trying to maintain quality.

So, leave the magic at Hogwarts and be honest with yourself that something’s got to give. You just need to work together and find out what it is.

(P.S. let me keep the Harry Potter reference, please boss 🧙✨)

Be Slow to “No”

Even if your first reaction is a hard NO 🙅‍♀️, you don’t need to say that out loud (or shout it, though I know that would feel good…). Turns out people don’t like to hear the word no, and it can sour the project even if your intent is to compromise.

Here are some quick phrases you can use to curve additions a bit more tactfully:

  • “We can definitely do that! I estimate those additions will take xx time, so we can do that if we move the deadline to yy. ”
  • “Yes, we can make those additions! It’s a little beyond our original scope, and typically, those tasks take us about xx time to complete–so if we can add  YY to the  project budget we’re all set.”
  • “Those sound like cool additions, I’d love to work on them! So we don’t push back the timeline on the current project, how about we tackle those as soon as we’re done with what we’re working on now.”
  • “Absolutely! But I know we’ve got a pretty tight budget and timeline for this project, so let’s re-organize the tasks and see what takes the highest priority.”

And finally… we’ve all been there

Scope creep happens, even if you lock down a project perfectly in the beginning, there’s always a chance something will get added or changed. But now you know what to do. You got this, you rockstar. 🌟