Scope Creep: The Quiet Quality Killer

scope2Scope creep is a term more often used in product management and development than marketing, but just like PMs, marketers, particularly agency folks, are at a big advantage when they can flag it in its tracks.

While any marketer is vulnerable to it, there is a big difference between simply having work piled on and moving deadlines (while on salary), to being in an agency where every hour counts. The fact is, even charged overages due to project scope changes can effect a damaging ripple through the rest of your business.

Not only does it affect your global client project flow, but can also seriously affect your bottom line if you don’t manage it effectively. Certainly any project will naturally expand and (rarely) contract as the goals and opportunities come into clearer focus; it’s a natural part of the collaborative process that can’t and shouldn’t be seen as a negative. That said, it’s critical to identify the risks associated with scope creep at the very outset of a project and communicate those with the client. Why? It jeopardizes timelines, user experience, functionality and in the end the very quality of the work. That’s why it’s also critical to manage it effectively at the precise  moment when it occurs.

But before going into the field tactics of managing client-initiated add ons during project delivery, I’d like to address some of the precipitating factors that may invite these issues at the very outset of client engagement. Being myself a repeat offender in this area, and on both sides of a contract, as both a marketing director and agency account lead, I will engage in some honest self reflection.

The seeds of scope creep are often planted at the very first pitch meeting with a client and one might go so far as to say they are in the DNA of every pitch. Why? Any successful proposal must display both a proven process and a willingness to be flexible as situations and directions change. But navigating these waters involves a delicate balance of being open to change in strategy and tactics and a providing a clear verbalization of the process, gates, and realistically achievable requirements.

Phase II
One of the more effective tactics to employ in these early conversations and throughout a project is the introduction of a bucket called “Phase II”. Whether Phase II actually ever happens is less important than its role in helping to prioritize items while allowing the brainstorming to procede unfettered by immediate realities and timeframes.

As the project proceeds, a client will inevitably ask for additional elements – it’s never less. It’s important at these moments to get a quick and clear read on the importance of an item, and what it will involve. If your scope is already ambitious, you may offer a tradeoff – “Ok, then let’s take a look at what pieces of the project we can leave for phase II”, or suggest to move that item to Phase II. The worst thing to do is suggest changing the phase one timeline, re-scoping and re-building the project plan. This not only brings  unforeseeable ripple effects throughout the business, but opens the door for more of the same.

A good general strategy to avoid this is to phase the project definition and planning itself. A recent experience unscores the importance of this. When working with creative-minded clients, you may have experienced what I call “constant ideation”. This is great if you are in the creative department tasked to constantly come up with great new ideas. It’s very dangerous when a project is already defined and on track. In one case a client would excitedly bring a new and game-changing idea to the table every few days. The ideas were great, but the ability to prioritize and deliver them was problematic. In the end the project was woefully delayed and not necessarily improved through the process.

Our new approach is to enforce a fairly strict timeline for the ideation phase of any project. Any new ideas, unless they are earth shattering, are automatically logged for phase II. This is an effective way of keeping the creative juices flowing without jeopardizing timelines and the quality of the work you deliver.

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