Causes of Project Scope Creep

Project managers can usually spot project scope creep once it appears, but by then the damage has already begun and it’s a challenge to get things back in line. Sometimes the hardest part of fixing a problem is knowing why it happened in the first place. That’s the case with teams that find themselves hindered by a scope that has grown out of control.

When an initiative’s parameters aren’t properly monitored and managed, there’s real potential the project will result in failure. The organization may not have enough money or staff to complete everything within the expanded scope. It’s not uncommon that they simply run out of time and must abandon the project before it’s finished.

Unfortunately, the causes behind project scope creep are often a subtle mix of factors that begin quietly and can go unnoticed for quite some time. The impacts may not become apparent until it’s too late to develop any sort of fix. If you want to stop scope creep in its tracks, it’s important to identify the triggers early and implement corrective measures before they break your project’s boundaries. Below are a handful of common issues that could signal impending scope creep.

Conflicting views among the leadership team

Executives frequently show considerable passion about their desire to achieve certain goals. If a PM isn’t able to focus that intensity and get consensus from the leadership team on the project’s fundamentals—not just the scope, but also its target completion date and resource requirements—they’re setting the stage for problems later. Gaining agreement from sponsors and executives will limit the likelihood that new goals will be added or priorities changed mid-project. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to what the initiative will accomplish and when, as well as what level of resources are allocated to deliver those results.

Inadequate data gathering

If the project planning phase is hurried or abbreviated for any reason, there’s a strong possibility the team will miss key information that is vital to the development of a workable project scope and charter. Targeted expertise that outlines regulatory requirements or technology issues, for example, is crucial in identifying entire sequences of activities that must be included in the project. As the team bumps up against gaps in their knowledge, they have little choice but to expand the scope to compensate for what they missed the first time around. Avoiding this scenario calls for rigorous planning, otherwise the project’s scope will never be completely defined and will instead continue to creep outward as efforts move forward.

Lack of accountability

Organizations that haven’t historically focused on holding individuals accountable for their areas of responsibility may have unintentionally created a perfect environment for scope creep. When accountability isn’t a priority, there is little push-back from team members against adding new activities to the project, even though the increased workload will consume time and possibly funding. Increased accountability helps keep tasks on schedule and reduces the chance that the list of planned activities will grow beyond the team’s ability to handle it.

Insufficient project controls

When a team is busy, it can be easy to miss small issues and no one may notice a few minor changes to the project’s scope. If an organization doesn’t have robust controls in place, numerous seemingly little additions can pile up before anyone realizes it, eventually leading to big complications. Project controls alert PMs to these changes in the project’s parameters. They provide an early warning whenever activity conflicts or other issues have the potential to disrupt progress or push a project outside its approved budget or schedule.


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