How Do You Deal With Scope Creep?

Ok, so we were asked the following question: 

"I'm a big fan of having a structure in mind when approaching a tough conversation, especially an internal one. Something I'd love some thoughts on would be the structure of a conversation that addresses an evolved role. I don't mean 'How to ask for a raise,' but I often wake up 6-12 months into a role and realize I've taken on a lot more responsibility than I was hired to do - but short of applying for a higher position or getting a promotion. I'm unsure how to approach the topic of  'Hey, my role has expanded - I don't know if you (the client) realize that it's changed, but could we take a look at that?' That conversation, which involves initiating it, having a base of data to review that solidifies your point, and possible outcomes that one might ask for. That would be handy for me." 

Great question!

There are really two roads we can go down here: freelancer/client and employee/boss. We're going to cover both, but first, let's get on the same page regarding the problem. 

Defining Scope Creep

While employee/boss scope creep is typically referred to as a "workload increase," they're basically the same principles. All the term means is that the originally agreed upon work has increased, or your role has expanded in some way. In short: things have been added to your original Scope of Work. They've either crept up on you, or fallen directly onto your lap with no regard for your current workload. Your best line of defense is to be as clear as possible with your SOW from the beginning. Get it on paper, get it agreed upon, and get it done early and often. 

Examples of Scope Creep:

Favors, just a little something, can you knock this out, we've added this, can you also do that, it's only, we've changed the project to include something else, etc...

When It's Not Scope Creep

Projects change often, and things get added to benefit the project. That's cool. In some cases, that can be why a project is fun. If you're getting paid a fair rate and you have enough time, then it's not scope creep; it's just the nature of the project. So it usually boils down to boundaries: if it's within your boundaries, it's not scope creep - it's just work. 

OK, But What's a Scope of Work (SOW)?

In freelancing and project management terms, your SOW is the outline of the work to be done and how long it will take to finish. This sets expectations for the project so that everyone is on the same page before starting. However, vague language and lofty concepts open you up to scope creep. You want to be as specific as humanly possible about the tasks you will complete, how much you will be paid for this work and by whom, and when this project will officially end, or when your work is due. You're in danger of the worst kind of scope creep if you fail to define what "done" looks like from the very beginning. Ask your client: "What does success on this project look like to you? How will we know when it's done?" This establishes clear goal posts for the end of the project. 

What If I'm an Employee and Not a Freelancer

In this case, your SOW would be the agreed upon work contract. Also, check out the job advertisement. That may give you a clue (and documentation) of what parameters had been established for the role before you got there. In the case of an expanding role, without a new position, you may want to draw up a list of your original job duties as you experienced them and the new additions you've taken on since. What was your idea going in versus your current reality? 

How Do You Handle Scope Creep?

The difference between freelancer scope creep and salaried-employee scope creep is the level of control you have over the situation. As a freelancer, you are expected to know how many hours a project will take you, how that relates to your rate, what the goals are for the project, and when you can finish it. You're also expected to draw up a super clear SOW that establishes how this is all gonna go down. You're in the driver's seat here because you're the independent contractor setting the rate. 

As an employee, your options are a bit limited, as the solution to your increased workload or expanding role could be that the company needs to hire a new employee, or create a new position within the company. Those solutions can often lead to complicated processes for larger organizations, and the bureaucracy of that structure can make things slower. 

In other words, to have a conversation regarding scope creep, there are two different communication strategies. But before we go into that actual conversation, there are some commonalities that we should take into account.


  1. Do your research. 
    Scope creep is inevitable in most situations, so be prepared and set expectations early. Also be sure to examine all of the variables going in. You should be able to answer the following: What exactly are you being paid to do? What's the goal of your client/boss? What's in it for them? What do they care about regarding this project? How long will it take you to complete this job from start to finish? What are the priorities, for both you and your client/boss? What do you need from them to complete this project? When and how will you be paid? What's your contingency plan? Make sure you have a clearly defined strategy going in. 
  2. Communicate.
    The first time you discuss the Scope of Work, and define what your role is, be sure to communicate what you expect and ask questions to determine what the client/boss expects. This is your opportunity to define deliverables, milestones, and who's responsible for what. You want to establish a clear SOW based on your research and their expectations. This conversation should end with an agreement on the path moving forward, as well as a discussion on how you will handle scope creep when it arises. Define scope creep for this project, specifically. Will it require an increase in rates, and if so, how much? Talk everything through, and stick to the facts. 
  3. Speak up! 
    From day one, you should expect scope creep. The second it happens, speak up. You have to establish and maintain clear, and fair, boundaries. Every time you allow scope creep to occur, and for every month you wait to speak up, you lose respect from your client/boss and increase your own frustration. In some cases, this can make you resent your job or your client, and may increase your anxiety surrounding an inevitable conversation...which brings us to our next point...
  4. Stop being so eager to please and/or such a perfectionist. 
    Every time you let a little thing slide, that sets a precedent, whether you recognize it or not. Maybe your client/boss keeps adding to your workload, little by little, and the pile just grows and grows, but you just sit there, smile and nod. You don't want to be difficult, you're trying to be polite, but at the same time you feel like you're going to snap. We've been there. It's hard. 

    Or maybe you're just a perfectionist, and you don't care how long it takes, you're "going to get this right, damn it, even if it takes all night!" You don't even care if you get paid for those extra hours, they work just has to happen. We've totally been there too.

    Both of these paths will build resentment, threaten to make the necessary conversation far more volatile, and will not help you achieve "your optimum level of success." (Ali Wong reference.)
  5. Keep your emotions in check. 
    Scope creep can lead to resentment, and that's never healthy. But in some cases, your client or employer might not even realize scope creep is taking place. While you may feel crushed, they might not even be aware of it. It's nothing personal; they just can't read your mind. So talk with them - calmly and professionally - about the situation before you blow a gasket. And if you know you'll be working on a complex project, keep all lines of communication open. It's a marathon, not a sprint. 

FREELANCER SIDE NOTE: Consider an hourly rate if you're consistently having issues with scope creep. We know, we know, this is a greatly debated topic, whether to charge per project or per hour; but in our experience, an hourly rate (sold in blocks, or sprints) has greatly improved both our quality of work and our sanity. Our clients appear to be much happier with this process as well. 


Preparing for the Big, Bad Conversation

Kidding. This doesn't have to be difficult. You just have to be prepared. Here's a breakdown for each option: 

The "My Workload has increased" Employer/Employee Conversation:

This process starts with homework. First, consider your role from your boss's perspective. How valuable are you to this team? If you were gone tomorrow, what consequences would there be for the company, if any? Can someone else easily step into your role? What do you bring to the table that no one else will? What objectives did you set out to achieve initially, and how many of those have you completed, or dare we say, knocked out of the park? Can you demonstrate your success with specific numbers or metrics? For instance, did your work increase sales or decrease expenses for the company? How can you prove your value? Write down your assumptions. 

Next, devise a list of all the activities you do for the company, and how long each task takes you. If you're thinking ahead, start keeping a time log. Determine for yourself, before approaching your boss, if there are any tasks that can be cut from your role, or delegated to someone else. Also, figure out what "success" looks like for you here. What, specifically, do you want your employer to do for you? How do you want them to respond? What can he or she do that would make you feel more valued? How will your ideal solution affect your boss and the company? And what steps will they need to take in order to implement any course of action you're recommending? 

Then, determine what you can bring to the company over the next year, should your solution be implemented. How can you increase your value to the organization if you do get a raise, or a new role, or the ability to delegate? How will your work justify that increase in salary? What projects can you focus on, and what benefits will they provide to the team? 

Once you know the answers to these questions, send an email to your boss requesting a quick 15-20 minute meeting to discuss your role or job performance. (It's always good to keep a paper trail.) Bring your research and facts with you, and present your case. But please don't approach this conversation with the argument that you work hard and you've got bills to pay. Unfortunately, while that may be painfully true, it's not a winning strategy. Instead, stick to the benefits you bring to the organization, and include the facts that prove it. Maybe even provide a one-page doc for your boss to read after your meeting, if he or she needs to think about it. (Include metrics.)

Finally, provide a clear call-to-action for your boss to respond to. Outline the next steps you'd like for them to take, and offer to help your boss implement these changes so that it's easier for them. Ask your boss if they'd have your back if you put this plan into action. If things go your way, set up a follow-up meeting to discuss the results of these changes. Tracking your progress moving forward will make you an even more valuable member of the team, and give you more confidence going into your next meeting. 

And even if they say no to what you're offering, at least you'll have clarity as to where you stand with the organization, along with what your role is and what it's worth to them. 

The Freelancer's Scope Creep Conversation: 

Alright, you're a freelancer or a small business owner working with clients. You have a previously agreed upon SOW, but extra work is sneaking up on you. You can feel it, breathing down your neck. What do you do? 

Refer to your original SOW and contract, first and foremost. What does it say? If you could rewrite or do it all over again, what would you change? How has the client increased scope, specifically? What are the activities you've completed (or have been requested to complete) that go beyond scope, and how do they affect your timeline? How were boundaries crossed? Did you set up expectations poorly? If you could tell the client anything, right now, what would it be? Write down your answers. Now, reflect on how these challenges might be viewed from your client's perspective. Are they aware that they're increasing scope? Have you established your rate with them already? How long has it been since you've said something, if you've said anything at all?


  1. If the additional work or requested work is outside of your area of expertise, you can recommend that they hire someone else to complete that task. Ideally, you can recommend a colleague to make this process as seamless as possible. 
  2. You can set up a phone call with your client (or, if you must, discuss this all via email) regarding the increase in scope. Refer to the original SOW, outline the additional tasks, and suggest that you draw up a revised SOW, including the additional tasks required to complete this project. Be sure to establish your rate and revised timeline in the process. 
  3. If they keep revising a project, remind them of the maximum number of revisions included in your original SOW and suggest that if they wish to continue revising this project, then those hours will be subject to a certain rate. 

There may be more options out there, but those are the most common. Of course, if you choose to establish a flat hourly rate, as we do, you simply need to maintain open communication with your clients and inform them on where you are with your hours of work. Be sure to detail what activities or tasks you've completed in each time block, and if you're recommending another block of time, outline the tasks you plan to complete within that time frame. If the client continues to add new tasks or duties outside the SOW, remind them of the overall project schedule and maintain transparency regarding deadlines and deliverables. 

And finally, be positive! You've got this. 

We hope that answers your question, Anneliese! 

Bonne chance,
-A.J. & John

(Have a question of your own? Don't hesitate to ask us. We won't bite.)