Managing Scope Creep in a Small Business: Strategies to Avoid It

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It?

Scope creep is a term used to describe a common struggle that businesses deal with in project management. It’s especially prevalent with businesses that work with clients on long-term projects, but can apply to nearly any type of company.

Even if you’ve never heard the term before, it’s probably something you’ve dealt with at some point. Here’s an explanation and some tips for dealing with this issue in your small business.

What Is Scope Creep?

In basic terms, scope creep is when a project gets bigger and bigger without you consciously deciding to change the scope.

Nick Twyman, software engineer for Truss, explains in a phone interview with Small Business Trends, “Say you’re building a little treehouse. And as the project goes along, somebody says, ‘hey maybe we could add windows on the back, and instead of a rope ladder we could add a wooden ladder that goes along the tree.’ Then later it’s, ‘maybe we should add a chimney and then a deck along the top.’”

This unintentional growth makes planning difficult for businesses, and can strain client relations as well.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t intentionally scale projects and do it well.

Twyman adds, “It’s not so much that things change as you go along. It’s when things change but the plans or expectations don’t.”

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It in your Small Business?

How Does Scope Creep Apply to Small Businesses?

For small business, scope creep can appear in a few different ways. It’s common with client projects, but can also creep into general growth strategies as well.

Let’s say you have a Main Street retail store and are looking to host a small event to thank some of your best customers and give them access to exclusive sale items. You start with a very small budget and simply send email invites to those who have bought from you many times.

Then you decide to extend it to those who follow you on Facebook, so you create an event online. People start inviting friends and eventually the guest list grows beyond what you originally planned. Now, you need to purchase more food and party supplies and staff your store more than you originally planned.

Or if you have an online business, let’s say you’re working with a client on a new marketing campaign. You start with the idea to just try out a few Facebook ads to see what gets them the best results. You set up an A/B test.

But then the client asks you about a few other features and you set up additional campaigns for those without going over the budget in detail. With several test campaigns going at once, it’s harder for you and the client to make as much sense of the results, and they went over budget for their ads.

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It in your Small Business?

Managing Scope Creep in Small Businesses

Scope creep is a common challenge in project management that can affect small businesses in various ways. To effectively manage it, consider these strategies:

  • Clear Expectations: Establish clear expectations with clients or stakeholders regarding project objectives, scope, budget, and timeline from the outset.
  • Regular Check-Ins: Implement a system for regular check-ins with clients. This ensures you can promptly address any changes or additional requirements that arise during the project.
  • Communication: Maintain open and transparent communication with clients throughout the project. Discuss any proposed changes and their potential impact on scope and budget.
  • Document Changes: Document all changes to the project scope. This includes details such as why the change is necessary, how it affects the project, and any associated costs or timeline adjustments.
  • Client Feedback: After project completion, seek feedback from clients to improve future processes and prevent scope creep in subsequent projects.
Clear ExpectationsEstablish clear project objectives, scope, budget, and timeline with clients or stakeholders.
Regular Check-InsImplement a system for regular client check-ins to address changes or additional requirements.
CommunicationMaintain open and transparent communication with clients, discussing proposed changes and impacts.
Document ChangesCarefully document all changes to the project scope, including reasons, impacts, and associated costs.
Client FeedbackGather feedback from clients after project completion to enhance future processes and prevent scope creep.

By establishing clear expectations, maintaining communication, and effectively managing changes, small businesses can minimize the impact of scope creep and deliver successful projects.

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It in your Small Business?

How Can Businesses Avoid Scope Creep?

Over the years, Twyman has developed a few tried and true methods for avoiding scope creep, especially when working on client projects.

First, you need to have clear expectations from the client — what they expect, what they think the project should look like, how much they’re willing to spend. Then, you need to have a system for reconnecting with them regularly to share your progress and see if they want to make any changes.

Twyman says, “You need to set the foundation for checking in. Have the expectation that every couple of weeks or once a week or month, you sort of repeat the exercise and come back to the major stakeholder at the client to check in.

That’s the difference between scope creep and managed change. If you all decide to build the treehouse with all those extra features, that’s great. Just make sure everybody is on the same page and understands the cost.”

He also notes that you should meet with clients after projects to find out their thoughts, even if you’re not working with them anymore. This can help you develop better processes to serve clients going forward.

  • The Role of Project Managers: In larger organizations, project managers play a crucial role in scope management. They act as intermediaries between clients and project teams, ensuring that any proposed changes align with the project’s objectives and constraints. Small businesses can benefit from designating someone to oversee scope management, even if it’s not a formal project manager role.
  • Effective Use of Technology: Project management tools and software can assist in scope management. These tools provide features for documenting scope, tracking changes, and communicating with clients and team members. Small businesses should explore project management software options to streamline scope management processes.
  • Change Control Processes: Establishing formal change control processes is essential. This involves creating a standardized procedure for requesting, reviewing, and approving changes to the project scope. All stakeholders should be aware of and adhere to these processes to prevent ad-hoc scope changes.
  • Risk Assessment: Small businesses should conduct regular risk assessments to identify potential sources of scope creep. By proactively identifying risks, businesses can develop mitigation strategies to address them before they impact the project.
  • Client Education: Educating clients about the implications of scope changes is vital. Many clients may not fully understand the consequences of expanding the scope, such as increased costs and extended timelines. Providing them with clear explanations can help them make informed decisions.
  • Scalable Processes: As small businesses grow, their project management processes should be scalable. What works for managing scope in small projects may need adjustments as projects become more complex. Flexibility and adaptability in process design are key.
  • Quality Assurance: Implementing quality assurance processes can help maintain project scope. By ensuring that deliverables meet predefined quality standards, businesses reduce the likelihood of rework and scope changes due to subpar work.
  • Legal Safeguards: In some cases, it may be necessary to include legal safeguards in contracts to manage scope effectively. These safeguards can outline the terms and conditions under which scope changes can occur and how additional costs will be handled.
  • Continuous Improvement: Small businesses should view scope management as an area for continuous improvement. Regularly assess and refine scope management processes based on lessons learned from previous projects.
  • Client Collaboration: Collaborate closely with clients throughout the project. Involve them in key decisions and keep them informed about progress. Engaging clients can lead to a better understanding of their evolving needs and expectations.
Clear ExpectationsEstablish clear expectations with clients, including project objectives, appearance, and budget.
Regular Check-InsImplement regular check-ins with clients to share progress and discuss potential changes.
Role of Project ManagersDesignate someone to oversee scope management, ensuring alignment with project objectives.
Effective Use of TechnologyUtilize project management tools and software for scope documentation, tracking, and communication.
Change Control ProcessesCreate formal processes for requesting, reviewing, and approving changes to project scope.
Risk AssessmentConduct regular risk assessments to identify potential scope creep sources and develop mitigation strategies.
Client EducationEducate clients about the consequences of scope changes, helping them make informed decisions.
Scalable ProcessesDesign project management processes that are scalable as small businesses grow and undertake more complex projects.
Quality AssuranceImplement quality assurance processes to maintain project scope by ensuring deliverables meet defined quality standards.
Legal SafeguardsInclude legal safeguards in contracts to outline terms and conditions for scope changes and handling additional costs.
Continuous ImprovementView scope management as an area for continuous improvement, regularly assessing and refining processes.
Client CollaborationCollaborate closely with clients throughout the project, involving them in key decisions and keeping them informed.

By implementing these additional sections and strategies, small businesses can further enhance their scope management practices and minimize the impact of scope creep on their projects.

Preventative Measures Against Scope Creep

To safeguard your small business against the challenges of scope creep, consider implementing these preventative measures:

  • Define Project Objectives Clearly: Before starting any project, define clear, measurable objectives. This ensures that all stakeholders have a shared understanding of what success looks like.
  • Establish a Scope Statement: Develop a detailed scope statement that outlines the project’s deliverables, deadlines, and exclusions. This document will serve as a reference point for managing scope changes.
  • Set Boundaries for Changes: Establish a formal process for managing changes to the project scope, including a change request form that outlines the nature of the change, its impact on the project, and approval requirements.
  • Communicate Effectively: Ensure that there is a clear line of communication between your team and clients or stakeholders. Regular updates and feedback loops can help identify potential scope creep early.

Fostering a Culture that Minimizes Scope Creep

Creating a culture that actively works to minimize scope creep involves several key elements:

  • Education and Training: Educate your team and clients about the implications of scope creep. Training sessions can help team members understand how to manage requests that may lead to scope expansion.
  • Empowerment: Empower project managers and team members to say no when necessary. They should feel confident in addressing requests that fall outside the agreed-upon scope.
  • Collaborative Planning: Involve key stakeholders in the planning process. This collaborative approach ensures that expectations are aligned from the outset and reduces the likelihood of scope creep due to misunderstandings.
  • Reward Efficiency: Recognize and reward team members who effectively manage their projects within the original scope. This incentivizes efficiency and adherence to project boundaries.

Tools and Techniques for Managing Scope Creep

Leveraging the right tools and techniques can significantly aid in managing scope creep:

  • Project Management Software: Utilize project management software to track project progress, changes, and communication. Tools like Asana, Trello, or Jira can help keep everyone on the same page.
  • Change Management Tools: Implement change management tools or templates to standardize how changes are requested, reviewed, and approved. This formalizes the process and ensures consistency.
  • Time Tracking Software: Employ time tracking software to monitor the time spent on various project activities. This can help identify when the project is deviating from its planned scope and resources.

What is Scope Creep and How Can You Avoid It in your Small Business?


While scope creep is a pervasive challenge in project management, it is by no means insurmountable for small businesses. By adopting proactive strategies such as establishing clear expectations, implementing robust communication channels, and documenting changes meticulously, small businesses can effectively manage and mitigate the risks associated with scope creep.

Furthermore, the role of technology and project management tools should not be underestimated. Leveraging these resources can significantly enhance a small business’s ability to monitor and control project scope. Additionally, the cultivation of client education and collaboration can foster a transparent and cooperative environment that minimizes surprises and aligns everyone’s expectations.

As small businesses grow and take on more ambitious projects, the scalability of scope management processes becomes essential. Flexibility, adaptability, and continuous improvement should be embedded in these processes to ensure they remain effective as projects evolve.

Ultimately, while scope creep may always be a potential challenge, with the right strategies and a proactive mindset, small businesses can navigate it successfully, deliver projects that meet client expectations, and continue to thrive in the competitive landscape of project management.

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Annie Pilon Annie Pilon is a Senior Staff Writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 12 years. Annie covers feature stories, community news and in-depth, expert-based guides. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College Chicago in Journalism and Marketing Communications.