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How to Prevent the Dreaded Scope Creep

scope creep spelled in letter blocks

Whether you’re a marketing veteran or a recent college grad, you likely have more than a passing acquaintance with “scope creep.”


For various reasons, the scope of the project keeps changing, which makes successful execution impossible. How can you nail a moving target?

Maybe the marketing team thought they knew what the client wanted, only to find out later that they were mistaken.

Or perhaps the customer was one of those people who don’t really know what they want, only that “they’ll know when they see it.”

Then again, sometimes customers think they know exactly what they want but change their minds halfway through the project.

Regardless of the underlying issue, constant scope revisions—which sometimes involve changing the entire direction of a project—wastes significant time and money. This article examines common causes behind scope creep and offers solutions to help keep marketing projects on track.

Lack of Customer Clarity

Some clients come to marketing firms and other professionals without a clear idea of what they’re looking for. They freely admit lack of expertise in this particular field and trust their partner to propose an effective solution.

While such faith can provide the opportunity to flex creative muscles, it’s easily shattered if the team recommends a direction that the client doesn’t like. Clients can be downright cagey when asked to provide guidance for the project.

How many times have you heard a customer say, “I’ll know it when I see it”?

To minimize frustration on both sides, you need to identify what the customer is trying to achieve with the solution. What problem are they trying to solve?

All too often, the customer comes to you with their idea of the solution, and the marketing team takes that information and runs full tilt. This approach, however, fails to validate whether the solution requested by the customer will actually solve the underlying problem. Even if you deliver what they asked for, the customer still won’t be satisfied because the problem won’t be solved. 

Very few project teams successfully work with the customer to map out the solution—both visually and in words—in a way that the customer can understand and relate to. This critical step involves conducting a “solution definition” session with the customer to uncover their vision of the solution, including their must-haves and nice-to-have features and functions. Drilling down into what’s really important to the customer will give you a clear road map to work from.  

As much as possible, create mock-ups for the customer to react to, so you can translate their verbal requests into pictures. Like IT professionals who communicate in tech-speak, marketers also tend to use language specific to their industry. Often, customers don’t really understand what you’re talking about, even if they are nodding their heads.

Another issue stems from the fact that most people are visual thinkers. If you’re talking about solutions, but not drawing pictures, creating mock-ups, diagrams, etc., then there will likely be a disconnect between what they think you are doing and what you actually are doing. 

Use visual aids to bridge this gap.

Changes in Direction

Sometimes customers start a project knowing exactly what they want, but then things change. 

This happens. Some things can be predicted, and if you’re good at project planning, you can anticipate some of these changes and build in contingencies.

But other things are unpredictable, and if the change is large enough, you’ll need to have a change management process in place.

In such cases, you’re often starting over from the beginning, which means the project needs to be re-planned. Create a new solution definition, a new schedule, a new plan, and then execute against that. 

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The customer defines the solution at the start of the project but makes additional requests along the way. 

You have to set expectations with the customer at the start and create a firm cutoff point for solution definition: “We will continue to brainstorm and work through what the solution looks like until this date. We will execute against that solution to create Version 1 of the project. If you want new features or functions, they will have to wait until the next project, the one that builds Version 2.”

The alternative is to have a change management process that allows the customer and other stakeholders to request scope changes after the project has started. The problem with this approach is that every change request requires you to go back and re-plan what you’ll be doing, which wastes a lot of time. 

Another option is to start with an agile approach in which you don’t lock down the scope. Instead, you continue to iterate the solution with the customer until you get it “right.” Contrary to the popular obsession with agile methodology, it’s not the best approach for every project.

All of these challenges—and many others—can be solved by developing skills in collaborative project leadership. If you want to learn more, take our free crash course on project leadership and then look for our virtual training program.

Mistina Picciano

As Managing Editor of OD Innovator, Mistina Picciano combines her passions for communication and peak performance. She researches and writes about leading practices to help individuals and organizations realize their greatest potential.