Scope creep = client wants more work done for the same money. Not pretty. It’s no surprise that consultants dread it. It usually means late nights, grumpy analysts, dissatisfied clients, and potentially lower project margins. All bad things.

In the end, it is a fancy word for misunderstanding. What the consultant and client expect the project to deliver is different. Sometimes it is the consultant’s fault for being unclear, sometimes it is the client’s fault for adding things on last-minute. The consultant thinks he is  solving problem A, and the client thinks the consultant agreed to solve A+B+C.


It takes all kinds of forms. This monster has many different shapes and sizes. Ask any consultant, and he will commiserate with you about scope creep for several beers.

It happens all the time. Although it rarely derails a project completely, scope creep is like the common house cold.  It happens on every project in one form or another. Sometimes it’s just a client’s passing suggestion and other times it’s phrased more like a demand.

Scope creep = out of control. Beyond the work and the money, I think there are other reasons why consultants find scope creep so demoralizing. It’s a barometer that the project is not under control. And trust me, consultants like to be in control.

Consultants are effective because clients have loaned us some of their organizational and political clout to set the pace, nudge clients into action, and keep the takt time of the work. We have the leverage to get things done through our interviews, workshops, surveys etc. .

So when the client question the scope of the work, well. . . .  it’s a bummer. It’s like one parent being second-guessed by the other parent in front of the kids. What will the kids think? This type of push-back chips away at the perceived (or actual) control we have of the project. Even though clients are advocating for the consultants to do more work, perversely, the clients are making it harder for the work to get done.

Scope creep = longer project. Consultants like project-based work. We like the challenge of new projects and tend to get bored doing the same thing month-after-month, or -gasp-, year-after-year.  Project work is great because it has a start / middle / end. There is a sense of accomplishment when all the work is turned in and the client says “thank you”. Scope creep means delaying the celebration and satisfaction of a job well done.

Remedy #1: Be smart from the beginning. Ideally, the project scope is clearly outlined in the proposal and the statement of work (SoW). It is common for the SoW to be fairly explicit on what will get done during the course of the project. Clients sometimes find it a bit repetitive and process-oriented, but it is really the only thing that protects the team and keeps guard-rails on the project.

Remedy #2: Re-iterate scope. Don’t want to be too heavy-handed about this, but it’s helpful to remind the clients of the project scope. Have them confirm your progress, and implicitly, agree on the end point. There are subtle ways to do this too. For example, you might have a page in your interim presentations which looks like this.

Controling scope creepYou can update it regularly to track progress. The storyline goes. . . “We finished phases 1 and 2, and now we are focused on phase 3.” If this is the same diagram that the client saw in the SoW, even better. The more clients see it, the less likely they will fiddle with it.

It’s like a rock climber who puts anchors in the rock as he climbs; even if he falls, he doesn’t fall that far.  In the same way, the project milestones anchor the project’s progress.

Remedy #3: Say no the right way.  cope is the senior manager / partner / director’s job. They must protect the project team and manage the client’s expectations. It only makes sense that the “boss” of the project is the one to gently push-back on the client:

  • They are usually the ones who have the client relationship
  • They are the ones who approved or wrote the statement of work
  • They own the project profitability and can decide to add more resources if needed
  • They are the “bad cops”. The day-to-day team can stay in the client’s good graces

Remedy #4: Be flexible. There are times when it makes sense to give a little and do the extra work.  Sometimes, it doesn’t.  Saying YES to clients can get consultants in trouble.

Clients want to feel like savvy buyers of consulting services. Clients want to have an answer to their boss’ sharp question, “Did we really need to hire the consultants?” Our job is to give the client enough value (and coaching) so they say “Yes.”

Remedy #5: Think like Ferrari. Clients pay us for our experience, objectivity and professionalism.  As Enzo Ferrari said, “The client is not always right”

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