3 Steps to Outsmart Scope Creep

July 3, 2014

When I first started out as a solopreneur, I’d do anything and everything that my clients requested—even if it meant putting in extra time at no additional cost. I was fine with it, until I landed a few big projects and found myself in a lot of trouble.

I started recognizing a problem. The ‘above and beyond’ attitude that guided my behaviour was spiraling out of control. I was losing money on projects because of one innocent word: “yes.”

Apparently, this problem is common among freelancers and other service based businesses. It’s called “scope creep,” and it’s one of the biggest challenges in an entrepreneur’s career.

According to Techopedia, scope creep “refers to a project that has seen its original goals expand while it’s in progress.”

It starts small and slowly amplifies until finally you’ve completed six projects for the price of one. I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. The silver lining, however, is that I can share my ‘tips learned the hard way’ with you:

Step 1: Build planning into your project scope

The bulk of my business comes from the production of B2B whitepapers. I like to operate with little direction and enjoy jumping into projects—to hit the ground running, so to speak. I used to advertise this ‘autotomy’ as a value proposition for my business. Then, I scored my first big client.

Client: “This isn’t what we wanted.”

Me: “I’ll make it right! What do you want?”

Client: “I don’t know.”

What happened next was scope creep overload. My business took a dip in revenue, and the project—ultimately—became very unprofitable.

To prevent that kind of disastrous scenario, I began to build a mandatory ‘planning’ stage into all of my projects—especially for long, complex customer educational materials. I now conduct a series of pre-interviews and brainstorming sessions, followed by an in-depth outlining process. We define the scope of work together, so that both parties are happy with the outcome.

I’m happy to say that I still work with the client referred to above—but under this new arrangement. They love the new process because it ensures that we stay aligned so I can deliver exactly what they want. They’re one of my favorite clients.

I should add that my business’s value proposition has since transitioned from “autonomous” to “collaborative.” This process has helped me establish a steady base of repeat customers and has increased my month-over-month revenue by 30 percent.

Step 2: Speak to your clients before it’s too late

I used to think that ‘having a spine’ would hurt my business. I was afraid to say ‘no’ or ‘push back’—even when I was clearly in the right.

Push came to shove, however, and a scope creep scenario forced me to ‘confront’ my client.

I thought that the relationship would be over. But it wasn’t. ‘Talking it out’ made our bond stronger.

I came to a profound realization—I work with amazing people. They are, above all, human. They get it and are equally supportive of my business as I am of their goals.

Now, as soon as I recognize symptoms of a problematic situation, I speak to my client. Instead of ‘telling them what to do’ and expressing frustrations, I simply ask questions.

“How is this going for you?”

“What can we do better?”

Instead of a confrontational scenario, we end up working together and forging a mutually beneficial path forward. This process has been a core part of all my client relationships. Never once have I experienced an antagonistic or destructive confrontation—even if I’m asking to upgrade a project’s scope.

By approaching my clients as soon as the project begins to creep, I make sure that my projects stay profitable, and that I deliver what my clients want. Two happy parties, instead of two frustrated ones.

Step 3: Have a line in your mind

This piece of advice comes from my long-time friend and fellow content producer, Jenna Birch.

While I’ve been able to minimize scope creep for the time being, I know that it will probably happen again—especially as my business continues to grow.

I know that there will come a time when I will need to walk away. It’s a fear of mine, so I am constantly seeking advice from others who have been there—fellow scope creep veterans.

Jenna encouraged me to develop a set of standards for my business—to clearly map what I’m willing and unwilling to accept. That way, the decision to ‘drop a client’ or pursue a more drastic plan of action—whatever that may ultimately be—will be grounded in logic rather than heated emotion.

I have a clear set of boundaries that include:

  1. Patterns of rudeness
  2. Disorganization
  3. Lack of clear direction

If one of these three problems interferes with a working relationship, I’m out.

Final Thoughts

Embrace your personal strengths. Everyone is different—I am extroverted, love in-person meetings, and enjoy tackling ‘extras’ as an opportunity to challenge myself and learn. The three steps that I developed suit my strengths and work well for me. Your preferences may be totally different—and that’s okay. What strategies have worked for you?

Share your thoughts with the Freshbooks community in the comments section below.

More great ideas to grow your business

Find out the 5 ways Ritika went paperless and saved 20 hours a month.

Learn 3 ways to smell a bad client from a mile away.

Discover how to deal with demanding and unrealistic clients.

FreshBooks Tip

Discover how to track time for your projects.

Check out this video tutorial on how to track time.

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.

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