When projects go awry: How to address scope creep as a freelance consultant

Let’s face it; we’ve all been there at some point. Caught up in the whirlwind of a disintegrating project. It unfolds in pretty much the same way every time. You’re energised and enthused by the potential of a new freelance project. You undertake thorough research, identify class-leading benchmarks, create plans, assemble a strong team, and get working.  Then, inexplicably, somehow, somewhere, things start to unravel. Soon, deadlines are disregarded, and deliverables are downplayed, leaving you with a disgruntled client and a dented professional reputation. It’s nothing but a terrible end to a promising start.

More often than not, projects unravel because of what is termed as scope creep (sometimes referred to as scope drift or scope shift). It’s a negative development that is recognised as one of the key causes of project failure.

Research has shown that project management, a large part of which is the initial project scope, is undergoing significant changes. In particular, external factors are driving changes in how projects are scoped across almost all industries.

External impacts may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • latent or legacy circumstances
  • economic conditions
  • technical changes, and
  • limited access to resources

The research also highlights the fact that external impacts on projects look set to increase in the future. If you find this worrisome and can feel your anxiety levels rising as you read this – don’t panic – you are not alone. Studies by several leading institutions and consultancies around the globe reveal that some 50% of projects suffer from scope creep.

7 areas to identify and correct when facing a scope creep

To make sure you don’t become part of the negative statistics, we have put together an 8-point list of areas that you should focus on and rectify in order to get your project back on track when it feels like things are going off the rails. So, if you have a nagging feeling things are going sideways or you are already facing challenges, consider the following actions:

1. Honest self-assessment

As unsettling as it may seem, you might be the cause of certain project challenges.

One of the pitfalls that freelancers and independent consultants often face is gold-plating.

This happens when an effort is made to demonstrate additional capabilities to the client by offering services that are not part of the original scope. While it is beneficial to showcase your numerous skills and demonstrate how you can add more value to the client, there is a time and place for it. Not all projects are outlined the same way and there might not always be space to extend your services without it having an impact on the current project. It’s always advisable to focus on delivering the current project outcomes on time and within scope. In the end, this will build your reputation and single you out as a professional which can become the backbone of repeated business. Too much time spent on delivering out of scope outcomes can cost you the current project and future opportunities. The best time to present value add services and skills is at the end of a successfully executed project, not during it. So, whenever a scope creep occurs, begin by conducting an honest self assessment and rectify your own doings immediately.

2. Manage stakeholder strife

Stakeholder input is frequently intense in the early phases of a project. At this point, the project is adaptable and changeable, and stakeholders may look to take advantage of this situation in order to extract additional benefits. Once a project begins to move, it gains speed and strength of its own, but this does not eliminate disruptive stakeholder tension. A well defined project scope is the best tool to keep a project on track when stakeholders start to get too demanding. Whenever a client or other involved stakeholders begins to ask for too much, the freelancer can always reply on the project scope to define boundaries and ensure that input is solely focused on supporting project objectives.

Afraid of burning bridges with a demanding client. You might find our co-founder’s advice on the art of managing and influencing stakeholders to be helpful. Read more here: https://outsized.com/article/the-art-of-managing-and-influencing-stakeholders/

3. Incorrect approach to prioritisation

Projects can be challenging at the best of times. It is easy to be overwhelmed and not see the wood from the trees. Prioritisation is a critical element which has a direct impact on the success (or failure) of a project. When you start to notice that the project is not going in the direction that you envisioned, it could be easily due to faulty prioritisation of tasks. While scoping documents are powerful tools in the project environment, it’s important to note they are simply the starting point from which to distil and prioritise activities.

Some tried and tested methods that all freelancers must acquaint themselves to include the Eisenhower approach and the Pareto principle.

Thus, if such an instance arises where faulty prioritisation has been identified for a scope creep, these methods can help you (and the project) get back on track.

Another element of prioritisation that is often overlooked is the deadline.

A project, by definition, has a starting date and an end date. Every project needs very throughout timelines to achieve the defined deadline. If you are not sticking to deadlines or colleagues are casual about timelines, the impact can be significant. Getting the client side team members (or other essential stakeholders) to recommit to timelines is often one of the simplest ways of getting a project back on track. Make sure to take a closer look at the time management aspect of a project when looking for what is causing a scope creep.

4. Avoid milestones becoming millstones

Milestones and tasks deadlines are related. The task phase of one milestone cannot begin until the phase preceding it has been completed. Status reports with respect to milestones progress are critical. It’s surprising how often these reports and progress charts are ignored.

If you are uncertain at which point a project has started to drift, assessing delivery against project milestones is a good place to start and identify corrective action.

5. Communication, communication, communication

If your project isn’t progressing as anticipated, poor communication is likely to bear a large portion of the responsibility. Examine your present communication method to identify any gaps or weak points. A couple of important questions to ask are:

  • What communication channels does your team presently use?
  • How are you disseminating information?
  • Is there a central location where team members can follow the overall development of the project?
  • How frequently do you check in as a group?

There are several online solutions that freelancers can utilise to maintain impeccable communication channels. Additionally, it is also essential to develop offline channels of communication. While technology has made it easy to communicate without having to leave the comforts of our office (or home), having regular face-to-face meetings with clients and teams members can help the project move in the right direction. Often, scheduling regular in-person meetings can help you avoid scope creeps altogether. Do not underestimate the power of personal interactions and use it as a strengthening tool for the health of your project.

6. Project Sponsors

Keep project sponsors abreast of developments – both good and bad – at all times. Project sponsors are executives or senior managers who have considerable influence and authority over projects. While they are not likely to micro-manage projects they are a powerful resource you can call on when things are going wrong. They will know which organisational levers to pull in order to get a project back on track.

7. The power of ‘no’

Occasionally, a modification request will arise that obviously adds no value to the project and may even have a detrimental influence in the long run. It’s fine to say no in these cases.

Present your argument to your client clearly and suggest the best course of action, bearing in mind the resources you have at your disposal. If a client insists on particular adjustments, try combining their requests into a different project that can be tackled later. This will allow you to keep to your present arrangement rather than making adjustments all the time.

Real world approach

Projects are seldom similar in nature and there are no fixed approaches to addressing drift. In any project environment you have to be willing to accept change and manage it in order to achieve productive outcomes. Passivity can be your biggest enemy and active management from the beginning is the best route towards securing successful project outcomes.