How to Stop Scope Creep From Eating Up Your Profits

Whether you freelance or work in an agency, if you're a creative pro, you've dealt with scope creep. Learning how to prevent and manage scope creep is an essential skill for a successful creative professional, because letting that scope creep away at will can be devastating. 
Writer and Game Designer Sande Chen explains: 
Since some projects involved branching narrative, this means that if one section is cut from the game due to production costs, this will affect the entire branching structure and I will have to rewrite the story again.
This type of dependency is common in creative work of all kinds; the client may request what seems to be one simple change, addition, or deletion, but the creative pro has to do extensive work to achieve it without demolishing the structure of the project. Chen ended up having to rewrite one "epic story with lots of branches" a total of three times due to these kinds of requests. Most freelancers can't afford to give away the number of hours involved in that kind of accommodation work; and no creative professional should be expected to do so much work for free. 
(Chen, by the way, is now careful to include rewrites in each contract, but to limit the number allowed.) 
Creative pros set their rates in two primary ways: by the hour or by the project
At first glance, it seems that using hourly rates would make it easy to handle scope creep. If a client requests more work, simply track and charge for your hours. Project rates, on the other hand, offer a certain project (or portion of a project) completed for a certain amount. When additional client requests or changes trickle in, it's often with an assumption that they'll fit into that stated estimate. That means, of course, that you're now doing additional work for no additional money. 
There are two issues with using an hourly charge to avoid scope creep issues. The first is that many clients prefer a project estimate; they want to know the total budget for the project. The second issue is that time management is just as important as financial management. If you allow any project to expand without limits, even if you're billing additional hours for it, you have little time left for other projects, new clients, and interesting opportunities. Essentially, you become a time-slave to the one creeping project, and when it finally does end you've got little, if any, other work still in progress. 
The solution is to use a combination of project and hourly pricing. Create your project estimate as usual, and when your client wants changes or additions that weren't part of the original estimate, offer to do the work at your standard hourly rate. Let your client know that you have a certain number of available hours you can dedicate to the project for those additional requests. 
There are several important prevention techniques, already explored in-depth, to help you stop scope creep before it starts. 
One simple way to manage scope creep is to plan for some of it. It's common enough that every creative will have to deal with it at some stage. As Andres Max, UX consultant and founder of Ideaware, notes:
In my experience, scope creep has been a part of over 80% of the projects I've worked with. It's one of the biggest enemies of keeping a project on time and within budget.
Rosie Brown, former freelance photographer and current creative project manager at a Sterling Communications, recommends this method:
We always mentally include an additional design step. A client may have a small budget and think he or she won’t need anything revised — “I trust your designs,” he'll say. But, everyone has a vision and two cents, so just account for it in your pricing and in your schedule and allow for feedback. The best case scenario is that the client will truly be happy with your first (or scoped) design and have no edits, and you can pleasantly surprise him with a lower invoice.
Adding an additional step in the project, perhaps as revisions or adjustments, will allow you to respond to some of those inevitable client requests or adjust the project to feedback without charging for more hours. If the hours aren't needed, you get to turn the project in for a lower-than-estimate cost. Just be sure that you keep track of the time put into that additional step, and when it's used up, communicate to your client that additional revisions or requests will be billed hourly. 
So you've done as much with prevention as you can, included an additional step in your estimate, and now you're well into the project. Your client emails with another request, but this time you know it's going to add work beyond your estimated allowance. Time for some pro-level client communication using scripts, questions, and options. 
A script in this case means a set of predetermined lines you use when responding to client requests, rather than a set of computer commands. If you tend to get flustered when negotiating with clients, or if you're dealing with a particularly pushy client, scripts can help you maintain your composure and your income. 
Do you know the story of Bartleby the Scrivener? "I would prefer not to" is, perhaps, the single most powerful script there is. You can add a little more to your scripts. Here are a few examples:
  • The Not-Now Script: "Thanks for your input! This particular change, unfortunately, would push us beyond the work we included in your estimate, so we can't include it at this phase of the project."
  • The Maybe-Later Script: "This idea sounds amazing! Unfortunately, it just doesn't fit in with the work we described on your estimate. We're going to hold this off until the project is complete, and then we can revisit it and decide how to make it happen."
  • The Additional-Charge Script: "This addition is a neat idea. For us to complete it will be another XYZ hours beyond the estimate, at XYZ rate per hour. Would you like us to add it on at this rate?" 
  • The Terrible-Idea Script: "We love to get client feedback, thanks! Unfortunately, this change you've requested would cause ABC problem with XYZ portion of the work. We would actually have to redo the entire XYZ portion, and you would lose ABC functionality/feature. In this case, although that change would be neat, it's definitely in your best interest to stick to the work we've already done so you can have the project you want."
  • The Awful-Design Script: "Thanks for your feedback. While considering your request, my designer pointed out that the feature you're suggesting would really clash with XYZ design element. To make it all work, we'd really need to go back to the drawing board and redo the entire ABC design portion. Otherwise, you'll have an end-product that doesn't convey the professional image you want to achieve here." 
Use these or write your own. Memorize them and keep them saved on your computer, and use as appropriate in face-to-face talks, on the phone, or via email. The power of the script is in the repetition. If you use the same script, or a slight variation, every single time the "one little request" conversation happens, your client will (eventually) learn that your response is not going to change. Sticking to the same wording and a consistent message helps you to avoid saying "yes" out of pressure or anxiety, and it helps your client to understand that you really mean what you say. Repetition works. 
Questions are your next communication tool. Using many, many specific questions, from the very beginning of the client relationship, helps you define clients' needs and priorities so you know what they're expecting. The easiest way to frustrate a client and hurt yourself is to assume that you understand each other. 
Rob Waite, co-founder of Hostpipe, recommends a deep dive at the beginning of the client relationship or project: 
I run a Discovery Session with every potential new client to ascertain what the overall aims and objectives are for the business and work with them to create strategies for the short, medium and long term. This builds time and trust with our customers, and the deep dive means I can also fathom out any potential problems we might stumble across when working together. It is a paid for session, followed up by a comprehensive report and action plan for the short, medium and long term.
Making an initial Q&A session a part of your workflow can prevent the miscommunication and unclear expectations that often cause a project to get mired in additional requests and ongoing changes. 
There's nothing wrong with simply pulling out a firm "no" and handing it sweetly to your client. But perhaps you don't necessarily want to turn down the work being requested; you simply need to make sure you'll be compensated for it. Options allow you to give your client the power of choice while giving you the ability to protect your time and income. When a request comes in, create an either/or option and share it with your client. 
Here are a couple of examples:  
  • "Either I can add this onto the end of the next phase for an additional X hours, or we can complete this project as estimated and then talk about getting those features added." 
  • "Either I can complete this addition over the weekend, for my weekend rate of X per hour, or I can extend the deadline estimated and get all the work done for you at the normal rate by XYZ extended deadline." 
When the request comes in then, your job is to: 
  • create a set of options that works for you
  • communicate them to your client (and don't include any other options)
  • end with a version of this question: "Which of these options do you prefer?"
You're being open to additional requests and ideas without subjecting yourself to time and money constraints outside the original agreement. Your client maintains a feeling of control over the project, while you maintain the autonomy you need over your work. 
The larger and more complex a project is, the more likely the scope will not just creep but sprint toward previously unmentioned frontiers. To keep your project in check, use phases, priorities, and endpoints.  
My general rule of thumb is that any project requiring five hours or more gets broken down into phases. These phases may only be known to me (depending on how easily I can communicate them with my client). However, most clients seem to be more comfortable when they know more: what to expect, when to expect it, and what to expect after that. 
Having phases gives you an easy way to include extensive additional work, for additional charges. When a new idea or request comes in, respond by:
  1. Asking if they'd like to add it to the current phase, when appropriate, and sending them the updated estimate for that phase, or... 
  2. Asking them to hold it for the next phase, if that's more appropriate, updating the estimate for the next phase.
Brown shares how her firm uses phases: 
We always embrace their feedback, but we follow up with asking what’s necessary for this phase. A lot of clients come up with some really great ideas that we creatives wish they had thought of when we were building out the scope. That doesn’t mean those ideas should be shot down. Instead, we write everything down and ask what’s necessary for finishing this project and what can wait for a later stage.
You can also ask for payments by phase, so you never end up with a bulk of the project unpaid after you've invested hours of your time in it. Phases allow your clients to easily understand what you're working on right now and when you'll be working on the next phase. 
When given a request that would significantly change the budget or push the deadline as previously agreed upon, it's time to ask your client to make a choice for you. 
  • "Do you want me to finish XYZ portion of this project by XYZ date, as planned, or to put that on hold and complete this other request for you instead, billed separately?" 
  • "Is it more important to you that I finish this work on time and under budget, or that I include this additional feature, which will take XYZ more hours for XYZ increased cost?" 
Clients often don't realize what a single change will affect in terms of the overall design, the resources needed, the time and budget required, and the dependencies affected. When you help them see the effects of a change in terms of their priorities, they're equipped to make smarter choices. 
Endpoints are so important in creative work, because, as all of us creative pros know, it's never truly done. There is always room for improvement. However, there are also other projects waiting. Having a way to wrap up projects or phases, call it a day and move on to the next thing is important for interest and income.
Make sure that each phase of a project includes a clearly defined endpoint which is accepted by both you and your client. You can also set an endpoint as a cap, or a predetermined number of hours you're willing to put into a particular project or phase. That keeps you from letting your entire business become consumed by one project or client, at the risk of missing other opportunities. 
Scope creep is not something to ignore. 
Creative work, by its very nature, is subjective and difficult to define. That's why it's so important that we, as creative professionals, learn how to protect ourselves, our work, our creative energy, and our clients from the slow torture of ever-expanding projects. 
If you do your work in prevention, and have some of these scope-creep management techniques ready and waiting, you'll be able to do great work, keep your clients happy, and keep your projects on track. 
Graphic Credit: Over Time icon designed by, GB from the Noun Project.


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