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How to minimize scope creep

Use structured project planning to stop scope creep at your MSP.


how to minimize scope creep

 

The following includes a brief recap of Moovila’s recent webinar, which you can also watch on-demand here.  

 

Scope creep is a destructive force in any project. It can be hard to prevent, though, because it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when things go wrong. The catalyst for scope creep often happens long before you know a project is in trouble.  


Maybe it started with a discount or a favor for the client. The change or addition seemed small at the time and was borne of an impulse to build a positive relationship with a new client. But, weeks later, you know it has spun out of control. According to the Project Management Institute, scope creep happens when extra features or requirements get added to a project without addressing how they affect time, costs, and resources. A decision, small at the time, evolves to a moment when you are losing money, your team is frustrated, you’re missing deadlines, and the client is unhappy.  


Who is at fault here?  


How scope creep starts 


“At its core, scope creep is a misunderstanding,” explains Bucky Jobe, VP of Operations at Moovila. “It happens, for the most part, because your expectations are not aligned with the customer’s. Maybe you failed to clearly define and review what work would be accomplished in the timeframe for the cost stated.” This can easily happen if you use shorthand descriptions.  



“At its core, scope creep is a misunderstanding.”



“Other times,” says Jobe, “the problem lies with a customer who hasn’t communicated their expectations.” Perhaps they keep adding work to the original scope, without recognizing the impact that has on costs or deadlines.  


“Usually, though,” says Jobe. “It’s a combination of these two things happening simultaneously.” 


Scope creep is a phenomenon that can be devastating to everything from your team’s morale to your profits. But if that moment where scope creep hatches is managed well, according to PMI, it can be turned into significant opportunity. The trick is to recognize the catalyst moment and respond intelligently. 


Scope creep – if you don’t have a solid plan for responding to change – is inevitable. But, with the right tools and plan, you can tame it. 


The devil is in the (lack of) details 


“A lot of times we see unclear expectations happen early in the sales process,” says Jobe. “Or the sales team doesn’t communicate the customer’s needs to the solutions architect and project manager who then don’t outline the expectations to the customer.” 


Vagueness and poor communication invite scope creep.  


This moment at the beginning is your opportunity to clarify every detail of the project. A vague scope of work, assuming the customer will understand the limits of a job, and customers who don’t know what they need all set your project up for scope creep.  


“We see a lot of MSPs present a scope with a flat fixed fee and very little detail,” says Louis Bagdonas, Senior Program Manager – MSPs at Moovila. This leads to misunderstandings. “This might not only be happening between your team and the customer but also within the organization and between departments,” he says. 


“If you don’t have a scope of work that includes every detail – what will be done and what isn’t included – it will be hard to explain the limits of the project or put together a schedule that will tell everyone when the project will be completed,” he says. “That schedule – and all the milestones  along the way – need to be made clear to everyone.” 


“Often, a customer will call with a specific need and the MSP simply sends over a scope for signatures,” agrees Jobe. “But we have seen customers have a lot of success by taking the time to talk over that scope of work – line by line – making sure the customer understands it and that the MSP understands the customer’s needs.” 


Turning confusion into opportunity 


This early conversation gives you an opportunity to nail down the scope, to feel out the customer, and to help them understand what is included in the services they are agreeing to. It can prevent scope creep later. But it can also expand your relationship with this client. 


“They are hiring you for your expertise,” says Jobe. “You may find, in that discussion, an understanding of what they need that they might not have arrived at on their own.” 

You might discover, for instance, that they need more work than they knew to ask for.


Learning that now not only allows you build it into your original scope and prevent scheduling problems down the road, but it also expands the client’s service contract. 


Once you have clearly defined the project and made the details clear to the customer and your team, someone has to take on the role of holding everyone accountable to the scope – as well as delivery dates and task completion. “Without someone constantly striving to assign tasks, push toward goals, push tickets onto specific engineers, and hit deadlines,” warns Bagdonas, “scope creep will take over.”  


If you have all these pieces in place, it is easy to identify the moment change happens. Everyone knows – your team, the customer’s team, the project manager, and the project management tool – what is included. So, everyone recognizes a request for something that’s not. 


Is that request significant enough to change the project, though?  


Define what creep means to you 


A big part of communication is agreeing on what words mean. So, once you have tightened up your scoping process and set up a system for communicating the details to all your stakeholders, define what scope creep means to your organization. 


A client stopping an engineer in the elevator to ask a technical question probably doesn’t trigger a change to the project schedule, price, or delivery date. But adding, say, an Amazon MRP installation to a project that was scoped with only Amazon ERP likely does.  



When does a small favor 

become scope creep?



But where is the line? When does a small favor become scope creep? 

 

“Relationship building work is valuable” says Jobe. “But if you don’t capture and document it and make it clear how much of it you are willing to do for free and when you plan to charge for it, it will quickly become death by a thousand cuts.” 


Take a moment to sit down with your team and decide when the red flag gets waived. And be specific. “You need to define what scope creep means to your organization,” says Bagdonas. “Is it one hour? Ten hours? One dollar? $10,000?”  


Once you define when a favor becomes scope creep, come up with a clear change protocol and make sure everyone on your team knows how to implement it. 


Design your scope change strategy 


You have a clearly defined scope. You know how much work triggers a change to that scope. And everyone on your team knows to raise a red flag when they see scope creep. 

What do they do? 


Do they call a meeting? Loop in the project manager? Does the PM rescope the original project or spin up a new project? 


“That change-control process doesn’t only apply to things that are billable or material changes to the project,” says Jobe. “It should govern anything that is outside the original scope, anything that will require that you revisit the plan and make changes.” 


Maybe this work is extensive enough to warrant scoping a new project so the work in progress isn’t derailed by it. Maybe it merely adds a few days, and a new resource to the project in progress. Whichever it is, if you have the tools to make those changes quickly and accurately – or quickly scope that new project – you can also quickly communicate the new expectations to your team and the change to costs and schedule to your client. 


“It is good for your relationship with customers if you bring them into these kinds of conversations,” says Jobe. “This kind of transparency creates trust.” 


When handled well, change doesn’t lead to scope creep. It triggers a process that can help you build a better relationship with your client and create more revenue for your MSP.  


Clear expectations + an accurate plan = higher margins 


“The only constant in a project is change,” says Jobe. “If you start with a clearly structured project, you will know what change is and be able to articulate it to everyone – internally and to the customer.” 


Once you have tamed scope creep, the next step is to get better at it. To improve everything from resource management to communication to scoping, always take the time to do a project post-mortem.  


“This is the single most important step toward improving profitability,” says Bagdonas. This step helps you iterate toward higher efficiency and saves you from repeating expensive mistakes.  


It might feel like the fastest way to profits is to quickly move on to the next project. “But we have seen MSPs who put a review of the project in as the last task,” he says. “Everyone – from the solution architect to the engineers to the project manager – sits down to discuss and document what went well, what went wrong, and what everyone learned.” 


This will constantly improve your processes – if you do it at the end of the project so you remember what happened and bring data. “Compare your plan to what actually happened,” says Jobe. “Was your budget over or under? Did you allocate the right people? Were your timeframes on target?” 


This will show you where you can tighten things up, when you need to raise prices, if you can offer discounts, and so much more.  


This is the path to continuous improvement. It is also how you minimize scope creep and maximize profits. 

 

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Connect with Moovila’s project management experts on LinkedIn: Bucky Jobe and Louis Bagdonas


Learn more about Perfect Project for MSPs, the ultimate project management tool for MSPs when it comes to better forecasting and overcoming project scope creep!  

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