Control web design scope creep with these 6 effective strategies

Keep the creep under control.

Most experts agree that the definition of a successful web design project is one that is completed on time, within budget, with features that meet the client’s business requirements.

When asked to name the biggest threat to project success, those same experts are likely to all agree with a resounding “scope creep!”

Scope creep is when you end up involved in work activities that weren’t previously agreed upon, thereby reducing your project profit margin and ROI.

Scope creep may be caused by the client OR by your own team unless you establish methods for preventing it.

The good news is, by implementing a few proven strategies, you CAN prevent it.

How a website project creeps in scope

The “creep” typically happens so slowly that it takes you by surprise. It can start with a small change request that is such a minor readjustment you don’t even think you should charge for it.

Then that is followed by one more request, then another, and another.

Before you know it, the “small change” has turned the project into a different and much larger animal than when it started. But the budget and the deadline are the same.

The result? Scope creep eats into your budget, reduces profit, and ruins your deadline estimate.

Because you are doing more work than originally planned, you often end up missing one or more of the project’s business requirements or objectives as well.

As a general rule, scope creep happens due to:

  • Lack of clarity in the project’s business requirements and objectives
  • Poor estimating (over-promising with an unrealistic completion date)
  • Beginning design and development too early in the process
  • Gold-plating disguised as over-delivering (adding features that weren’t requested)

Fighting scope creep

Adopting and implementing the following strategies will significantly, or even completely eliminate, the villainous, insidious scope creep:

1. Acknowledge project change as inevitable

There are GOING to be change requests on EVERY project. The client forgets to tell you something. You forget to ask something. You and the client come up with a good idea after the proposal is approved. It’s the normal course of things.

So, instead of treating change as a penalty and something to be avoided, it is best to acknowledge that it is going to happen and have a process in place for managing it to everyone’s advantage.

2. Position change as opportunity

A quality end-product is always the result of successfully managing 3 things, known as the triple constraint: scope, time, and cost.

Understanding which of these is the most important to the client is crucial to turning project change into the opportunity for future work and revenue.

For example, if the deadline is carved in stone, then changes to the scope should be avoided as that almost always results in a change to the project timeline.

At the same time, discouraging changes to scope naturally squelches innovation and new ideas that could potentially mean a better end result.

For that reason, it is best to encourage your client or your team to voice their ideas for improvement and if the impact to the project is too great, develop a Phase 2 list.

The Phase 2 list then becomes an opportunity for an additional project and additional revenue for you or your agency.

3. Establish and stick to a change control procedure

Although most agencies or individual website providers already have some sort of change control procedure in place, they often fail to stick to it so they end up causing their own scope creep.

For example, many providers will “throw it in” without charging if the requested change is small, usually under the guise of providing “added value.”

This is a mistake for 2 reasons:

  1. If you give your time and effort away for free, the client will expect it.
  2. You damage your own credibility by not following your own process.

4. Use a change budget

Many agencies will make the mistake of developing a precise project estimate during the proposal phase (pretending to be perfect at it) and then adding a “pad” (margin) to cover possible change.

A pad is an unspecified amount of money or hours scattered secretly and arbitrarily throughout a project’s tasks and activities. It attempts to cover anything from a minor feature change to a zombie apocalypse.

The problem with a pad is that no one knows how much it is, where it is, or what it is supposed to be used for – it’s not measurable.

You cannot improve what you cannot measure.

A change budget is a separate budget item that is used ONLY for change, usually 20-30% of the total estimate.

For example, let’s say your project estimate is $5000 if there are no changes — which we know there will be. An additional $1000 (20%) would be included in the estimate, over and above the $5000, but set aside in the change budget.

When a change request is made, the client then must decide whether the change is worth moving the money from the change budget to the project budget.

Using that same example, let’s assume there was only 1 change during the project that totaled $250. The final cost of the project would then be $5250. The client has now “saved” $750 that still remains in the change budget.

Using a change budget instead of a pad has the following advantages:

  • Reduces frivolous change requests
  • Ensures you get paid for all the work you do
  • It is measurable – it allows you to evaluate your requirements gathering skills and improve your process by reviewing and analyzing the cumulative change requests from your projects.

5. Educate your client

It is not enough to acknowledge change yourself. You need to acknowledge it to the client as well. This is best done by including your Change Management Plan in your proposal and reviewing it with the client during the proposal walk-through.

It is important to explain what constitutes a change, why and how change happens, how it can wreck a project, why you use a change budget, and how the procedure works.

When educating your client, it’s important to:

Approach the topic of change early. You need to describe your management plan and change control process early in the proposal discussions to ensure client buy-in and to prevent surprises when the project is underway.

Be brutally honest about project change. Give examples of how un-managed change has caused other projects to fail and reiterate why that will not happen on the current project.

Educate gently. It is not the client’s fault that they don’t understand how web development projects work. This is our “every day” but it’s not theirs. It is your job to gently educate them, without being condescending or arrogant.

Suggest other options for content activities. One of the biggest and most common bottlenecks on web development projects is content collection.

Clients often cause re-work and project delays by missing deadlines or providing unusable content. But many times, clients aren’t even aware there are other options, such as using a copywriter.

By clearly explaining the time and potential problems involved in providing their own content and exploring other options, you are setting proper expectations.

Should the content collection bottleneck occur, you can implement the change control process to adjust project delivery dates.

6. Invoke your change procedure without exception

This means implementing the change procedure for each and every change request, regardless of the “size” of the change and even if it doesn’t affect the cost.

For example, let’s say your lead developer becomes ill and cannot work for two weeks. Postponing the project delivery date does not affect the cost, but it is a change.

The postponed delivery date should go through the formal change process to document the client’s acceptance, and so you will know exactly why the original end date was changed.

The elements of a good change control procedure

The key to consistently completing projects on time, within budget, with features that meet the client’s business requirements and preserve your planned profit, is to implement a change control procedure that includes the following elements:

  • Defines what constitutes a change
  • Identifies who can initiate a change request
  • Establishes that all change requests are in writing
  • Identifies who will assess impact to the project
  • Uses a change request log
  • Specifies where the change request documents will be maintained
  • Identifies who will approve or reject change requests
  • Specifies how long a change approval or rejection should take
  • Clearly states what happens if the client does not respond to a change request
  • Specifies when payment for the change request is due

Be your client’s web design hero

You can become a project management superhero by killing scope creep. Invoke a good change control procedure without exception, and implement the six strategies outlined above.

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Image by: Belle Hunt on Unsplash