Scope Creep: Whose Fault Is It?

Scope creep. It’s the dreaded bane of every freelancer. If you’ve never had the scope of a project start to creep on you, though, you may not be aware of it happening because of its subtle foot-in-the-door manner of sneaking in.

Worse, you may not realize how much scope creep can affect your life. Before you know it, you’ve spent more hours on a project than you should, there seems to be no end to the work in sight, and the client comes back with yet another request.

It’s almost enough to make you want to cry.

Scope creep is preventable, and there are clear warning signals that help you head off scope creep at the pass. But before you learn how to stop scope creep dead in its tracks, you need to understand why it happens in the first place:

Were you clear in your proposal?

Even the fastest email you whip off to a client creates a proposal. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal to become an agreement that you may one day have to point back to and say, “Look. This is what I said I’d do.”

Every time you communicate with a client, be very clear on what you will (and won’t) do.

Did you outline the details?

Little details matter a great deal, and covering all your bases is crucial. Have you indicated the word count limit, the turnaround time, your payment terms, and how you deliver the goods? Did you mention how many revisions you allow, and give examples of what a revision means to you?

Spelling out the details clearly helps you nip scope creep quickly the minute it happens.

Were you firm with your stance?

When the client made a small request – just one last change – did you point the client had expended their allotted revisions? Did you indicate your rates for the extra work (and wait for payment) before revising the work?

It’s important to be polite but firm and ask for fair compensation when it’s due..

Did your own fears influence your decision?

Sometimes we allow scope creep to happen because a client’s request hits a nerve. Maybe you wanted to protect your reputation. Maybe you were afraid of losing the client. Did you worry that if you didn’t comply with the client’s wishes, he or she wouldn’t think well of you?

Most of the time, people respect you for taking a polite stand versus lying down and taking orders.

Keep in mind that it’s very easy to point the finger and blame the client for abusing your good faith. Taking a project too far, though, often has more to do with how you handle the situation than anything else.

How about you? Have you ever had to handle scope creep situations? What did you do about it? How do you protect yourself against it now?


  1. Phil says

    Excellent post. Scope creep can make a great project or client turn into one you’d gladly give up…I’m speaking from experience.

    This can happen with one-time projects and long-term clients. Usually, I’ll do a lot to keep long-term clients. But I had one that expected an increasing amount of research on articles with no subsequent increase in pay, so I had to cut them loose after seven years.

    The one-time client, a survey project long before there was online surveying taught me to limit what would be done under orginal agreements before additional charges. In this case, more surveys were returned than expected, but there were no terms for tabulating additional ones (took 15 minutes to tabulate the very detailed surveys).

    Newsletter work taught the importance of promising a single set of revisions before needing to institue additional charges. Otherwise clients will change their changes.

    Sometimes expenses (for example, I have a daughter with serious back issues) makes one want to agree to almost any terms, even changing ones, to get the work. But without protecting yourself against “scope creep” in the agreement/contract, you could be costing yourself much more in terms of time lost than that contract/agreement is worth.

  2. says

    I remember an article project where I tried to deliver the requested material–then the lady decided she was undecided about the webpage she wanted me to create. The company I was writing articles for allowed for three revisions. Finally, the article was done–hours and hours spent on a lower-paying article job. Ugh!

    I’m so glad that I freelance basically for myself now. I prefer running my own ship. I’m more choosy these days, as to what I take on, hence I don’t often find myself spending unplanned on hours on a project; however, on my own work, I must admit, I gladly spend many hours.

    We are a dedicated lot aren’t we?

  3. MojoRisen says

    Excellent Post!
    I’m a relative greenhorn to freelance writing, I’ve only been doing it about 2 months, although my Macbook is so far paying for itself!

    My very first freelance project caused me to suffer from a great deal of scope creep. It was a 400 page re-write prjoect with an extremely tight deadline. I worked for hours on end, and eventually realized the amount of work wasn’t worth what I’d agreed to do the job for.

    From that point on I’ve been extremely clear about my terms in my proposals, and do my best to have a rock-solid agreement between mysself and the client before I do any writing.

    I bet most writer’s have encountered scope creep possibly without even knowing it.
    Great Post, thanks alot.

  4. says

    @ Mojo – I think scope creep is one of those things that we all need to experience before we can truly recognize it. It’ll eventually happen to even the most careful of workers – and still happens to the most experienced of writers. Sneaky stuff, I’m telling you!

    @ Write – I’ve learned to spend a little more time investment figuring out what clients want and limiting revisions tightly. It’s kind of like playing a balance game – what do you want to spend now in time to save it later, versus saving now to spend later. Tricky!

    @ Phil – Agreed on much of what you say. I also agree that sometimes, we take on less-desirable projects for various reasons, and those are the ones that we have to be more careful about. Then again, bigger projects do have their share of headaches too. Can we say “endless project”?

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