What Is Scope Creep and How Do I Avoid It?

August 25, 2016

What Is Scope Creep and How Do I Avoid It?

No, it has nothing to do with stalking or creeping, or being a creep. It’s not even a criminal activity. But it’s a criminal waste of time for consultants.

So what is it? It’s the not-so-gentle art some clients have of persuading you to do more than they’re actually paying you for. Let me give you a few examples.

  • “We’re bringing all our sales guys together for a meeting next week. Could you come along and give them a quick presentation on what you’re doing?”
  • “I know we asked you just to focus on helping our IT section, but HR could benefit from a quick refresher on the system. It will only take a couple of hours.”
  • “Yes, but we restructured that part of the company since you started the work, so I expect you to cover all the functions in that section, not just what was there two months ago.”

Get the picture? Unfortunately this happens a lot and can put you in a difficult situation. You want the client to be happy and satisfied with the work you do. Equally, it would be nice to make some money on the project. And you’d like another project from this client after this one.

Think about it in a different situation, and it looks ridiculous: Try demanding a second dessert for free in a restaurant. Or ask an interior decorator to paint the outside while he’s there—for no extra cash.

Yet scope creep doesn’t always come from the client. I’ve been in meetings with other consultants who have initiated their own scope creep with ill-placed comments like these:

  • “We can look at that as well, if you’d like.”
  • “I can do that for you as part of this project.”
  • “It’s no problem to run a couple of extra training sessions within the contract.”

So how do you avoid it? If you’re initiating the scope creep, I think you know the answer to this question. If the client initiates, this is a $64,000 question. (Why $64,000? I’ve always wondered.) Like most issues in consulting, you deal with it on a case-by-case basis by being firm and professional and talking it through with your client.

Of course, it depends on how much extra the client is asking for, how much you value the client, whether it’s actually scope creep or just a different interpretation of the contract, and so on. It will also depend on how the job has progressed so far. If things went far easier than you anticipated, you’ll probably be more amenable to doing a little bit extra than if the opposite happened.

Fundamentally you shouldn’t allow any scope creep. It’s extra work you’re not being paid for. In practice, you’ll probably accept a little bit now and again as a gesture of goodwill. You should never—and I repeat never—accept extra work without letting the client know it’s outside the specifications. Statements like “This is actually outside the contract, but I’m happy to cover it in in this instance” generally serve the purpose.

The difficulty doesn’t come so much with little things that you’re prepared to cover at no extra cost. It comes when the client asks for something that’s really going to cause you problems in terms of additional time and effort. In this case, you have to be firm and say that you can’t do that within the scope of the project. You can say you’d be happy (if you are) to provide a quotation for the extra work. Or perhaps you’re prepared to cover a small part of the additional work at no extra cost.

If the client gets upset, that’s an unpleasant situation to be in, but you have to stick to your guns. This is supposed to be a professional partnership, so you have a right to make some profit on the project. If the client won’t budge, you simply have to refuse to do the additional work and accept that you’re probably not going to work for him again. But if your client acts like that, you probably don’t want to work with him again anyway.

The vast majority of clients are reasonable, and I’ve never had a serious case of scope creep that hasn’t been resolved amicably, even when I’ve said no. After all, you aren’t saying no just to be difficult; you’re saying no because it’s not reasonable to be expected to do a significant amount of extra work for nothing. Just stand your ground, be firm, and if you feel it’s appropriate, throw in the decorating or restaurant analogy. Sometimes it just adds that extra bit of perspective. 

As a highly experienced consultant and author of “Consulting Made Easy”, Adrian assists consultants, or would be consultants, to achieve success on their terms in their own consulting businesses.  Adrian helps consultants increase their fee rates, find more clients, have more free time and have more fun.
Contact Adrian at
adrian@adrianpartridge.com to learn more.

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