How to Prevent Scope Creep in Your Contracting Projects

Experienced contractors groan when they hear the phrase “scope creep.” They know that this little term spells headaches, late nights, and long conversations with clients until the difference in your visions is resolved. Learn what scope creep means, why it’s a contractor’s nightmare, and how to prevent it in your jobs.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep refers to the tendency of a project to change after the initial visioning. The scope includes the project, deadline, budget, and tasks you agree to complete. An adjustment in any of these variables impacts your workload.

While scope creep usually signifies that the job has now expanded — for instance, a mini bathroom remodel turns into a total renovation — in some cases, the scope can shrink or alter from the original. In this case, you might have purchased supplies that are no longer needed or even completed work that’s now not suitable to the project.

When the scope of job changes, you could wind up fighting with your client for payment of work you’ve already done that’s not outside the scope. Or you could be racing to finish a job while leaving other clients dangling because the scope has now grown.

Why Scope Creep Occurs

Scope creep is often the result of a miscommunication somewhere in the project. Perhaps you and your client had different expectations when discussing a project, which resulted in a miscommunication. Or perhaps you started the work without having the full conversation needed to come to an agreement on the project.

Scope creep can also happen when the estimate or the bid was not comprehensive. A client might not understand that a request is out of line with the project scope if your estimate didn’t spell out the scope for her.

Clients may also change their mind after your team has started working. As they see the project come to life, they may reconsider a decision they made. If they ask you to make a minor change and you comply, they may be inspired to request more changes — and assume you won’t mind the redirection. Every time you agree to alter the project plans on the fly, you risk increasing the scope of your project.

As you can see, scope creep is irritating at best. At worst, it’s disruptive to your crew and harmful to your bottom line. You can’t accurately commit to other jobs when you’re still trying to finish a job that’s fallen victim to scope creep.

Preventing Scope Creep

Your best bet for preventing scope creep starts with the conversations you have when defining the project. When you meet with a new client, ask questions. Note all of the details the client gives you; you’ll use these for the estimate.

While it’s important to find out the specifics — the “what” of the project — you’ll have better luck preventing scope creep if you also ask about the whys behind the project. Sure, the client is hiring you to replace an existing back deck, but why are they doing this? Are they simply replacing the deck before it becomes a safety threat, or are they investing in their outdoor landscaping with an eye toward putting their home on the market?

Asking “why” questions will help you understand the client’s goals for the project, which can then guide you in developing the project’s scope. Once you understand the client’s underlying goals, you can create a project estimate that best meets their needs. You might suggest additional services that would help them achieve their vision, thereby increasing your profit for the job.
After you’ve had a thorough conversation, write up a detailed estimate. Include the deliverables, the materials needed, the number of workers needed, and other variables that will make the estimate as clear as possible.

The estimate becomes your project bible. Any time the client wants to change something not captured in the estimate, you’re looking at scope creep. Decide whether the request is reasonable — something you can accommodate — or whether it exceeds the scope and should be subject to a change order. A change order alters the project scope, deadline, and in some cases budget. If the client signs off on the change order, you can go ahead with the new job. If not, you are protected by your estimate and can continue to deliver on the work you promised.


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