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Consulting Tips: How to Prevent Scope Creep

By Ken Chen

Scope creep — two words you never like to hear with consulting projects. It can happen. Often. One project comes to the top of my mind: we were hired to build a website for a packaged goods startup. We did a fine job of estimating the amount of work it would take, but the client was never happy. We created multiple wireframes, tried three different designers, and spent five times more than our planned project management time.

Much to our chagrin, we did not get paid the full amount for the job. The thing is, I could tell from the get-go that the client would be a challenge. Sometimes as a consultant, you just have to trust your gut about taking on new clients or projects.

In most cases, you can take steps to prevent scope creep from happening. Here are some strategies that should work for you.

Take the Time to Scope It Right Up Front

To create an estimate, you need to know your team, deliverables, tasks, and process of getting it done like the back of your hand. At your intake meeting with potential clients, you need to ask the right questions to figure out as much possible detail of the project before you can provide a realistic estimate. A checklist could include:

  • Goal of the project
  • Client’s budget
  • Timeline or deadlines for the project
  • How many rounds of review do you expect?
  • What will the meeting cycle be like?
  • How many stakeholders are involved?
    • If possible, put together a DACI model. Who’s the Driver? Approver? Who are the Contributors? Who should be Informed?

It’s important to think through all the activities that will take time during the project. This includes travel, meetings, side-meetings with team members, updates, documents, polishing of documents, thinking time. Make sure you get buy-in from your team members. They should provide their own time estimates for their pieces of the project.

On top of that, you’ll also want to provide cushion — some suggest as much as two to three times the amount. One big factor is a qualitative assessment of your client. Will the client be “not picky,” “medium picky,” or “very picky” (these are very scientific terms!). Is the client part of a startup with quicker buy-in from fewer people? Or they are a larger company that may require multiple stakeholders’ reviews and legal approval? Adjust your estimate accordingly.

Trial Project, Phased Approach or Price Range

What if the client can’t answer all the questions you have up front? If you can’t nail down the right details, a low-risk way of getting a better sense of how the client works is to do a smaller, trial project. You can gauge how much time they actually have to spend with you, what their priorities are, and determine what their needs truly are. For instance, you could propose:

  • An audit or analysis of the current situation
  • Research project
  • Scoping or an “architectural engagement” or plan versus doing the work
  • A one- or two-week trial for a longer project plan

Another strategy you can take is to create separate estimates for a phased approach for a large project. As an example, for a marketing messaging update project, Phase 1 could be Research/Competitive Analysis, Phase 2 is Positioning and Messaging Development, and Phase 3 is Updates/Implementation across marketing materials. When you take a phased approach, there are natural breaking points to evaluate whether or not to move forward with the project.

Lastly, you can provide a price range in your estimate. It should not be a very wide range, but it should give you more flexibility to get the work done. If you show a range, you can still compete with other consultants who may come in at a lower estimate. Present it to the client as the budget truly being under their control. If the client can spend more time up front providing input and setting expectations, you’ll both be better off managing the project within the budget range.

Solutions When You’re Stuck in Scope Creep

Even with the best-laid plans, you may still find yourself in a situation where you are working way more than you than estimated. A client’s business may change or a new stakeholder may get pulled into the project, causing unforeseen changes. If scope creep is inevitable, here are some solutions to deal with it:

  • Be ready to have a frank, honest discussion. Don’t be shy to remind the client of the original estimate/scope/plan/budget.
  • Partner with a “Flex” resource like EM Marketing. We can help you be more time- and cost-efficient by bringing in other team members (either behind the scenes or not). For example, we’re working with a big software company now. The project has one lead strategist, but she has two other consultants to help her with content development and Salesforce work.
  • Re-scope the project and estimate. Bring in more people or work from a longer timeline.
  • Plan D: Get out of the contract.

A change in scope should never be a surprise to you or your clients. The “creepy” part is when a small, manageable piece of a project evolves into something else. As long as you’ve gotten the necessary details up front (including what project success looks like) and check in with the team and client frequently on progress, you’re well on your way to preventing scope creep from happening.

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About Ken Chen

Ken Chen is San Francisco-based online marketing consultant and owner of EM Marketing. EM Marketing specializes in marketing strategy, product launches, customer acquisition, and mobile & social marketing.

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