How to deal with project scope creep

18 min. read

In this episode of The Heartbeat Podcast by Digital Impulse Conor, Andrew, and Lauren chat about the common challenge of scope creep in projects–and how we, as an agency, work to prevent and address it.

We get into some of our experience and insights around anticipating and preventing scope creep, including:

  • The importance of thorough planning, asking the right questions during the sales process, and setting expectationsearly
  • How technology, functionality, and pricing structures play a huge role in long-term project costs
  • Our experiences and strategies, highlighting the significance of effective communication, building strong client relationships, and being proactive in addressing potential issues.

Overall, keeping projects in scope comes down to clear communication between us and our clients. That way, we can help do everything possible to make sure projects stay in budget and on course, regardless of how cutting-edge the end result needs to be. Listen in for more details:

Transcript below:  

Conor Snell: Hey everyone, you’re listening to the Heartbeat Podcast with Digital Impulse, I’m Conor Snell.

Andrew Kolidas: Andrew Kolidas.

Lauren Allen: And Lauren Allen.

CS: Today we’re talking about a topic that comes up a lot in our project: scope creep.

When you start working on a project and you get into it and you do all your great planning on it and then you know stuff comes up and it just brings the cost and the timeline of a project, how side of what you’re originally planned for. It’s one of those things that no matter how hard you plan for, it seems to kind of always happen, but that’s what we do for a living.

So we spend a lot of time trying to prevent scope creep, trying to get ahead of it, and at the end of the day just communicate to clients when it becomes a big problem.

What do you guys think about the topic of scope creep?

AK: You know, it’s super interesting because I think it had the pleasure working along all different parts of the food chain here, from sales, new business, strategy, implementation, production. Usually when you’re a smaller company, you want to sign deals and scope creep really comes from not spending the correct amount of time scoping a project before a contract.

Now listen, when you’re a small provider and you’re looking to make a name for yourself and you have a good company on the hook, you just want to ink the deal. And those are the deal that lead to scope creep because everybody has got the best intentions, but once you get into the project, you understand sort of what needs to be done.

So I’d say the number one thing is being able to ask the right questions pre-contract to find what those red flags might be. So for instance, if a client’s like, “oh yeah, we got a content guy, he makes content. Oh, we have a team of all the leaders of each of the different practices that our office will write content for their sections,” you already know it’s going to be a pretty much a disaster.

You’re going to get content where somebody wrote a dissertation and 30 pages about a service offering and then you get the same content from somebody else that has three bullet points. All of that leads to scope creep and there’s a million other things as well. So there’s some quick cliff notes from my side.

LA: Yeah, I think Andrew hit the nail in the head. It does definitely start with the sales process and I think we’ve refined that and we’ve come a long way with questionnaires and asking as many questions as possible to try to prevent that, but it inevitably happens. And leading the account team, it’s my team’s job to be the first line of defense and identifying those kinds of issues and red flags and being able to talk about it before we get into a problematic area.

CS: I think that’s one of the biggest things is that people get into projects and they get into contracts thinking they’re thinking about opportunities for scope creep and they’re getting ahead of things and they don’t. Right?

Like the Boston example is the Big Dig, right? It was like supposed to be a couple years, a couple billion and then it became like double digit billion and 20 something years and just got crazy out of hands.

I think we’ve all seen how that can happen in a project (obviously, on a much smaller scale), and I think that there was like there’s a lot of corruption and there’s a lot of things they didn’t anticipate with the layout of the city.

But when we’re talking about a website or marketing campaign, what are some of the like major pain points that we look out for even just like big topics that we try to think about?

LA: I think the biggest honestly comes down to technology or functionality. We try to look at the website and have conversations with our clients to understand their needs, but inevitably they’re going to come to us in the middle of the project and ask for some sort of functionality that they want on the website that just was not on our radar.

We know how to build websites, they come with certain modules or designs and a lot of the basic and that can include animations and really cool things, but they might come to us and say, “Oh, we’ll acquiesce and integrate it into this process is the most important part of the business.” And well, that was never a conversation we’ve had.

So building something like that kind of falls outside of the standard website and I think those are the kinds of things that I’d say can ultimately lead to like the bigger scope-creep conversations, although and I think this stems from kind of the top down at Digital Impulse at least.

I think we do a really good job at trying to bend as much as possible with our clients and kind of give them more than maybe what other people would to try to prevent from the additional like just dollars accumulating throughout a project.

AK: It’s so interesting when you’re bringing up your example, I was thinking quiz functionality. So our minds are connected. I’m feeling you. I mean I would say that is a number one thing because sometimes our pricing, we try to get websites in the six figures, so I think that certain people think that just things like that are included.

So for instance and part of this is how you structure agreements because you don’t really start to ideate and have those planning sessions with a customer until you get in there, right? So what we try to do is at a certain project size, we try to set the expectations internally that hey, we might throw in one or two interesting things in here. They have the budget for that.

So part of it is setting expectations internally. If you just look at a document in SWU, you could try to get a specific as you want, but you don’t really know the project until we meet all the people working on it.

So when we onboard with a client and go through a kickoff, it’s like we’re meeting all these people we’ve never met in our lives. “Oh, Susie, she manages content globally.” And then they have extremely specific needs. But when you’re in the contracting process, you haven’t met any of these people and you know what, you won’t even have access to them.

So there, even if you ask the best questions, put as many specifics into the SOW in assumptions–like an assumption could be like “does not include quiz functionality.” You’re still going to run into client situations where they’re expecting something that are not in there.

So part of it is do you over explain during the sales process and be like, listen, we want to give you some wiggle room. We’re going to come up with some great ideas. Some of them might be a little bit extra. I think those conversations go a long way because of something is a little bit of above and beyond you could go to your point to contact and reference a previous conversation. Email trail is preferred. Yeah, I think we’re a factor and just kind of take it from there.

CS: Yeah, I think you’ve a great point about setting up some bumpers of like this is the scope and like anything outside of this. We’re understanding early in the process that anything outside of this is outside of this. We’re not expecting that to go in.

I feel like also part of our job as an agency is to think creatively about solutions to problems that allow us to address those things before, we even really get into the scope so that we can head off clients thinking like, oh, we actually need a quiz on our website. Like we need to come in and say, “do you need a quiz on your website?” early.

LA: Yeah. You bring up a great point and I think often when we come into scope creep type conversations or the client brings us something new, what we try to always do is present them with an option that is in scope. Sure, you could do it this way and it would be within scope.

But if you want all the bells and whistles and you want it this way or that’s with a requirement, it might, you know, end up costing you a little extra and then they get to make the decision. Am I am I able to go with the option that is within scope but maybe doesn’t get all the bells or whistles versus what they need?

But Andrew, you actually brought up an interesting point because I think our smoothest projects happen when the point of contact on the client side has done some of the homework proactively to talk to the internal stakeholders and team members to understand what their requirements are before our team gets involved and almost has their own laundry list of either pain points or this is what we need to operate and this department needs x, y and z because that just sets us off on the best foot possible if they’ve already done that homework proactively.

AK: Yeah, absolutely. Prep is everything.

CS: I mean that’s part of the value having an agency partner is someone who can step in and think about those things that you’re not thinking about because you’re you know doing your job you’re doing your business. So you know I think there’s some of those things that you know we try to head off there’s some creep things or some things you don’t think about that are inevitable that are going to come up in a project.

When that happens, how do we deal with that? What’s the right way to tell a client like, “this thing you need and you’re telling me that it is a non-negotiable is going to cost more money, or it’s going to change the timeline,” like how does communication factor into that?

AK: Baked goods. Yeah. Nice, delicious, 12 warm cookies on a platter.

I think there’s a couple of ways to do this and you know going back to contracts sometimes you know with bigger projects we’ll do like a scoping phase that’s paid so we can get a little bit more specific and that helps but when it comes to scope creep again if you’re communicating that if you have documented conversations earlier you’re helping yourself because if you could shoot an email over and be like hey remember we spoke about this we said this would be extra and those are in emails that becomes definitive proof because we have to put ourselves in the mindset of our client.

Let’s say it’s somebody managing a project and they have a boss that has unrealistic expectations and then from a timetable there’s no way they could hit a launch date because of maybe stuff that they slowed down on their side and then someone’s like you’re not getting any more money for this project you already got your budget and that you have to work within it but we need these 10 things done.

I think part of it is understanding where our clients coming from and what they’re up against. It’s not them being unreasonable, they might sound unreasonable because they’ve been given an unreasonable set of directives. So I think the first you got to humanize the people you’re working with, get them to level set with you and what are you up against. Build those connections, and then kind of use your problem solving or just figuring out like, “what’s the solution to a challenge.”

It’s about “what do you need to have happen.” “Well, this is what we can do.”

So I think if we’re consultative it throughout the process, that relationship pays dividends with scope creep because we could have those difficult conversations, we have the paper trail, and then we could humanize our point of contact to understand how can we solve their problem–which is probably somebody coming to their office being not so nice.

LA: Yeah I think you called out the human aspect of it. And I obviously we run into difficult conversations every now and again, but I do think generally we build really strong relationships with our clients.

So it’s not all, 9 times out of 10 it’s not a negative conversation. It’s just the facts, and we can figure it out together. And we partner that with them to either go forward with the solution what’s the cost where the budget constraints but it’s not usually a contentious conversation and I think that’s just because of the relationships we build with the humans on the other end of the project.

CS: It’s part of being a human is not being able to see every and possible future that’s ahead of you. In a way, like I did a little bit of research on this and I saw a report in the past that said that across the board, 50% of projects run into some kind of creep over their initial scope.

I think it’s just like part of working, honestly. Do you guys feel like it’s an inevitability, or is it just a part of the way that things get done?

AK: Yeah you know it’s a really good question and it has to do with your agency pricing structure to be honest. Because when we started out, we’re doing websites in the 20-30k range where you have no wiggle room, when your budgets are low.

Because a project could go negative as far as value pretty quickly and we had some of those experiences and learning moments early on, where we’re doing a site for 25 grand and it costs us 35 grand to make–so we’re in there and like looking at those numbers you’re like “okay this is difficult. The clients not getting what they want, we’re not getting what we want.” It’s like even if the site is successful, it’s not a successful engagement.

But that’s where the extra budget makes sense, because if you could price in to know that “20% of this project we don’t even know what it is yet.” And that’s what we try to do, because we want to be the agency that says “yes” and has wiggle room to ideate with our client.

When you price in a component of that and the budgets approved and the client is okay with the cost, then you could have a great project because you’re telling your team internally, “hey we have budget here.”

And it’s not just about using that to make more margins, it’s because we don’t know what this is and we’re gonna get the job done for them. We have a good feel for their organization, their people, and you got to make some decisions. So I think with lower budgets it’s really difficult, you get into much more contentious situations. With projects a larger budget, you could be more forgiving because the numbers are there and then you create that really positive client relationship.

CS: Would we ever tell a client early in the process to save budget for the potential of creep?

LA: If it’s identified within the discovery or scoping phase that there might be this extra piece but they’re not sure about it or, I don’t know, it’s up in the air I guess, or whether it needs to be built in we might say, “you can make that decision on that later it is gonna cost x, y and z to include that later down the road.”

But I don’t think we’ve ever started a project or relationship saying, “there’s gonna be scope creeps and you better say it extra 20% of cash later in the year for this project.”

AK: But we work it into the pricing, so we could tell immediately off the bat. Not in all cases, but if there’s gonna be some extra things that are on the “secret menu” that we’re gonna have to do for this project.

I think the other thing is as we evolved too, it’s accounting for all the expenses. One thing that used to really hammer us was a production at the end content population. I’m getting a lot of head nods.

CS: Totally, totally

AK: A lot ahead nods.

CS: That’s one of those things that always seems like it’s gonna be simple and then it is always way more complicated.

LA: Oh yeah, 100 hours later and we’re $5K in the hole.

AK: Exactly. I came the whole totally so those are the things that I think we do a better job accounting for in our price. Now and then, with some newer SOWs (again this is for the client really) we can–if any agency is saying “we know that exact specific cost to make this website,” it’s like… they’re making it up. They just don’t know.

You could look at previous projects and have a point of reference and be like, “this is what we think,” but you could have some more of those flexible items with certain clients to say you could get up to 50 hours of content population.

Because here’s a thing: clients love to shave costs sometimes off of a project to fit it within their budget–not because they’re trying to nickel and dime, but because they have a set budget. So many think that “oh we’ll do the content population at the end,” but once they realize it could be a hundred hours of work they quickly want to give us the keys to populate the content. Which is totally great! we’d love the taking care of that for a lot of our clients.

So sometimes we can put an initial SOW this includes up to 50 hours of content population because they want to do it themselves, but they know that “okay they don’t want to do it themselves now, we’ll give you 50 hours.” But we’ll have to bill it a certain rate.

I think it’s again setting expectations in written form if possible so you could reference them back. And if as long as you, I think, Lauren, you gave us some good advice numerous times where to take the client through the SOW so they understand what they’re agreeing to in signing.

Just like everybody on the earth, sometimes people have things to do and they’re like “this contract looks great” but it’s about understanding and taking client through in a granular fashion so they know what’s included. That goes a long way as the communication not just worrying about locking down the money.

LA: Well, we’ve also taken additional steps to outline even past the SOW roles and responsibilities, especially on the content and content pop side of things.

We’ll say “DI is responsible for x y and z,” and this goes into a brief, right? DI is responsible for x y and z, client will be providing x y and z, and everybody signing off on that knows. And if it becomes a problem down the road, we can refer back to that and we can talk about solutions to get over that hurdle.

But yeah, we’ve done a lot of processes to make scope creep all of these things as minimum as possible.

CS: Yeah I think that’s probably one of the biggest dangers for an in-house team trying to take a project like this on themselves, and when you work with an agency–like, we go through it all the time, we just understand where those things are. And sometimes it’s helpful to have a partner who can identify those problems before they even hit you.

And I think a recurring theme of our podcast is that communication between a client and agency is, like, the most important thing you can possibly do.

AK: 100%.

LA: yeah.

CS: Cool well thanks guys I think this is a great convo. Listeners, if you have particular instances of scope creep that if it you in the past let us know we’d love to talk about it but yeah I’m Conor Snell.

AK: Andrew Kolidas.

LA: Lauren Allen

CS: Thanks for listening to Heartbeat Podcast. See you!

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