If you work in the world of creative services (e.g. as a writer, graphic or website designer, illustrator or artist) at one point or another, you will experience scope creep. It is one of the biggest complaints I hear from creatives about their work. For those who are unable to manage scope creep, it can result in significant cost (i.e. loss) to their business. It also regularly damages working relationships. Whether it results from failing to implement a client contract with clear language (and boundaries), a client who changes his vision mid-stream, or a series of subtle changes initiated by a highly engaged client over the course of the project, managing scope creep is essential to being successful as a creative.

While it can be difficult to find balance in keeping clients satisfied and staying on track with project timelines, there are steps you can implement in your business practices to avoid scope creep in the delivery of your services. (And as with any business, the working relationship and project scope of work is most successfully managed by having a proper contract in place):

1. Properly Define the Deliverables

Projects are initiated to produce a certain outcome or result based on the unique needs of the client. Properly defining the deliverables requires that you do the necessary work to understand and capture the client’s vision and desired outcome. This is a skill, which generally requires spending enough time, asking the right questions, and communicating very clearly to ensure that you have properly understood the client’s vision. Then, the deliverables must be clearly spelled out in your client services agreement. This can be done a variety of ways including through clear written descriptions, preliminary drawings or illustrations, or via additional materials provided by the client to illustrate the desired outcome.

Properly defining the deliverables works to help set client expectations, and also allows you to plan for managing the project – which may require allocating additional people, and structuring your time and schedule to meet project needs and deadlines. Finally, clearly defining the deliverables increases the odds that the services will be completed in accordance with the agreement.

2. Utilize Time Constraints

Creative services can forever be revised, refined, or altered, so it’s important to utilize time constraints. You can do this by providing a certain number of client review sessions, a limited number of individual revisions, or by identifying a maximum amount of time that you will be spending on the project (in total), or on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, depending on how your project is structured. Ensure that such limiters on your time are clearly identified in your contract and readily understood by your client. This isn’t to say that you can’t make allowances if the client requests another revision or more design time, but it helps to ensure that they will simply be charged for such requests.

3. Specifically Outline Charges for Additional Work or Time

In addition to deciding upon project limiters (from a time perspective), you also want to clearly identify for your client what you will charge for additional time or work on their project. Make sure that this information is readily apparent in your contract, not buried somewhere surrounded by other unrelated language. You can use your contract to help set appropriate client expectations, and this is most effectively accomplished through clarity. There will very likely be instances where your client requests additional work or time. And your client should expect to pay for your time or additional work when they make such requests. Making your client aware of the cost for any changes requested (i.e. by providing an hourly rate, or providing sample project extension fees) up front, will help streamline this process. When they request additional time, or ask for work that is outside the original scope of the agreement, you can simply refer back to your terms regarding additional time or project extensions. Transparency and clarity in your contract, including around pricing, will help you to better manage both the project and your client relationships.

4. Use a Project Completion Date

Utilizing a hard end date can also work to your advantage. It means you have to meet this date; but if you are good at managing your calendar and timelines incentivize you (as they do for many people) to actually get the work done, this can be another method you use to successfully limit the scope and time spent on a project. (Obviously if there are review sessions or revisions that need to occur ahead of time, these will need to be scheduled appropriately as well). But this method can be a complement to use with defining other time constraints (paragraph 2), and offering project extensions (paragraph 3). When utilizing end dates, you want to be sure that if you are working with suppliers, subcontractors or other contributors to the project, that you have control mechanisms  in place within the project that allow you to properly manage it in relation to your timeline.

5. Outline Your “Menu of Services”

Another method you can successfully use to educate clients and set expectations regarding payment for additional work or time spent outside the scope of work agreed to, is to identify your “menu” of services within the contract – i.e. spell out what services you provide, and note specifically which services your client has selected, or include a provision that specifically states “x, y, and z, are not included in the scope of work applicable to this project.” For example, if creating a website for a client, you would clearly state that your design services or the scope of work does not include copywriting, curating photographs, providing Terms & Conditions or a Privacy Policy for the website, etc. If there are additional services you provide, you might define whether they are part of the project or package, or identify the additional cost to the client if they decided to add them to the project. This helps you avoid any assumptions wrongfully made by clients, and decrease the likelihood of conflict or confusion during the project.

6. Document Changes to the Original Scope, Signed by Both Parties

I also recommend that creatives use “change orders” – essentially addenda to the original agreement that allow the parties to make changes to the project scope subject to respective increases, where applicable, in cost – resulting in additional mid-stream payments to be made by the client. By using change orders, any changes to the original contract or scope are now captured in written amendments which must be initialed or signed by both parties. This is to ensure you are protected during the course of your project, and helps to keep clients respectful of your time and the original scope of the agreement. This method also improves the likelihood that you maintain project clarity between you and your client. It ensures that you avoid scenarios where your (surprised) clients are handed a large bill at the end of the project (even if they caused all of the scope creep themselves). Using a system like this requires that discussions about scope and related changes to the cost of the project are discussed and agreed upon each step of the way. Again, clarity (and documentation) is key to completing a job successfully, on time, and without conflict.

7. Bill Early and Often

My final tip for managing scope creep is to bill early and often. Billing your clients up front and frequently throughout the project gets them in the habit of paying for your time. Require down payments, and project payments at key – and relatively short – intervals to remind your clients that your time is valuable. Similar to using change orders, billing frequently also educates your clients on the project status, and helps them to understand exactly what time is being spent on their behalf (if billing hourly). If billing on a project (total fee) basis, I still recommend splitting up payments, if you can’t get paid your full fee up front, so that payments are timed relatively in sync with various stages of project deliverables. So often I hear from creatives who don’t bill at all until the end of the project, and in instances where the creative and the client don’t agree on the completed project, clients can then hold payment back until the creative has met his (usually increasing) demands.  Also, most clients do not want to be on the receiving end of a massive bill at the end of a long project – doing this also increases the odds that your client will dispute the time and work you’ve put into a project. Billing early and often is the way around these difficult scenarios where instead you use your bills/statements to improve communication with your client by keeping them apprised at regular intervals of your progress on their project and make payments more manageable for them at the same time.

If you have ever struggled to manage scope creep in your work, I hope that you find these seven tips useful. I am confident that you if you apply these in the right way, they will help you to successfully manage your projects and your client relationships. Using these strategies will increase the likelihood that you deliver a successfully completed project, on time, and to a satisfied client.

Also see “8 Business Practices to Minimize Client Confusion and Decrease Disputes,” for more help!


Here are my last three posts in case you missed them! 

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© 2018 Heather Pearce Campbell, The Legal Website Warrior