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Scope Change: 7 Tips To Handle It With Project Success in Mind

Managing Scope Change For Project Success

As a project manager, you know that change is inevitable — in fact, it’s natural.

How you handle scope change is what matters. After all, change isn’t inherently a bad thing.

And while projects are all about change, lack of change control is one of the biggest barriers to project success.

Responding to change is important, so you don’t want to tie everything down.

But how do you manage changes effectively?

What does it take to accommodate change without jeopardizing project success?

Let’s take a closer look at scope change and the most effective tips for creating a successful change control process.

What Is Scope Change?

Scope change is exactly what it sounds like: a change to the scope of a project.

Scope changes are deviations from what was originally agreed upon in terms of functionality, layout, quality, and responsibilities. These changes to a project’s scope could be the result of new requests and data or unclear requirements.

And while you’re first instinct might be to want to prevent these deviations from happening in the first place, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

As a project manager, you want to make inevitable and desirable changes manageable.

In its own right and when handled effectively, scope change won’t negatively impact a project. It’s only when it leads to scope creep or unclear objectives that problems can occur.

Scope Change vs. Scope Creep

First, you need to understand the differences between scope change and scope creep — because they are very different.

Scope change is a change to the project scope due to initially unclear requirements or the emergence of new requirements.

Scope creep is what happens when the project scope changes without conscious thought about the consequences. In other words, without going through a proper change control process.

And, when scope change isn’t handled properly, scope creep can start to, well, creep in.

Simply put, scope creep is something to avoid, while scope change is inevitable and something to handle.

Scope creep can lead to project delays, roadblocks, and budget issues — not to mention that the work to include these changes may require getting them done within the original time and budget estimates, leaving less time for approved parts of the scope.

It’s also important to note that even with effective processes in place, scope creep can happen. So it’s important to build a system that includes steps to deal with each piece of the change control process.

Reasons for Project Scope Change

You may be wondering what causes scope change in the first place and why it’s a normal part of the process. This can happen for a number of different reasons including

• New information or data: When you outline the initial scope of a project, it’s possible that you don’t have all of the information or data upfront. This could be due to miscommunication or because the client provided more data. Either way, this new information may require you to add additional scope or adjustments.

• Length of the project: Interestingly enough, the longer a project runs, the more time stakeholders and clients have to ruminate on ideas. This often leads to adding new features which inadvertently leads to scope changes and even scope creep.

• Unclear initial scope or scope statement: If the scope isn’t clearly defined up front, or poorly defined, you may need to make changes later on. This is why it’s essential to include both features in and out of scope, final deliverables, and the resources needed in the scope statement.

• Inconsistent or unclear requirements: High-level requirements tend to lead to fuzzy processes or product boundaries. This could result in misinterpreting the scope and involving too many stakeholders, which leads to more scope of work than what was originally outlined.

Keep in mind that when scope change happens — and it will — it’s essential to have a plan in place to deal with it.

How Scope Changes Impact Your Project

When scope changes happen, they impact the project.

But what exactly does that look like?

If not handled effectively, scope change can cause the following consequences:

• Impact on time and cost: The further into the project life cycle you are, the costlier scope changes get — whether that be financial-based or risk-based. Even a small scope change late in the project can be large because it may involve reversing previous decisions or tasks.

• Impact on quality: Ideally, you should never compromise project quality — scope changes or not. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case when you have a drop-dead deadline. If you compromise quality, serious issues could arise. The key is to prioritize addressing quality issues immediately after delivery.

• Impact on the project team: Changes pose the risk of unclear objectives, lack of motivation, and burnout in stakeholders. That’s why it is crucial to validate changes and only accept those that are absolutely necessary to the project goal.

• Impact on the project risk: The more changes you make, and the later the changes are in the project lifecycle, the greater the risk of running into scope creep, delays, and complications.

Scope Changes Pose Risks

Some of the leading reasons why projects fail include incomplete requirements, poorly defined requirements, lack of change control, and scope creep — which all point back to a poor scope change process.

But with an effective change management plan in place, scope change control protects you from scope creep and helps to manage stakeholder expectations.

While you don’t want to avoid scope changes, there are risks:

• Changes can lead to scope creep: When you add additional tasks or functions to a project without the right approval process, it devotes time to unauthorized changes. This can lead to more critical issues like wasting time on non-prioritized tasks.

• Changes can cause a lack of clarity: If changes aren’t documented and communicated effectively, stakeholders may lack the necessary clarity to make the correct changes.

• Project objectives and timeline can fall short: If scope creep and lack of clarity are the results of scope change, your objectives and initial timeline may be at stake.

Evaluating and Accepting Change Requests

When it comes to scope changes, the key is to always keep the project’s success top of mind.

As it’s unlikely that every request will warrant purposeful changes, it’s unwise to accept every request that comes your way. First, you need to get clear on the reason behind each request and validate it against the project’s purpose.

It’s helpful to determine your change request process early on.

For example, what types of changes should you escalate based on deadlines, and do budget changes warrant a more detailed approval process?

Communicating consequences clearly and transparently to stakeholders will allow you to get clear decisions from them before acting on requested scope changes — and that’s essential for validating requests effectively.

If a change request doesn’t fit the goal of a project, you can politely reject the request and move on.

Just remember that getting clear on how to evaluate each request is crucial to stay aligned with the purpose of the project.

Tips for Managing Scope Change

1. Put the Project’s Success Top of Mind

Think of the project’s success (i.e., the goals and purpose of the project) as your North Star.

It should always be what you look to when evaluating the validity of scope changes.

Basically, your number one priority should always be to make the best decisions in the interest of the project’s ultimate goal. Doing anything less could lead to scope creep and inefficiencies, which is why it’s crucial to have well-defined scope and deliverables to start.

2. Define the Initial Project Scope

The foundation for scope management is scope definition.

To meet the goals of a project, you need to create a structured approach for defining, evaluating, and approving scope changes.

And defining the initial project scope should be a top priority in the process.

The initial project scope should outline the goals and objectives, deliverables, exclusions and constraints, and baselines of a given project. That way, when scope change does happen, you know how to effectively evaluate the purpose based on the project’s goals.

3. Document Proposed Scope Changes In Your Backlog

A great approach for defining all of the work required to complete a project is to visualize and evaluate the product backlog — from the request to the point of production.

When planning upstream work, stakeholders typically face a mountain of stories to complete.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Visualizing this mountain through story mapping makes it easier to see.

By adding a change to your backlog even before it’s formally accepted, the story map helps you to understand whether and where it fits.

And when you combine story mapping with project management software like Nimble, you can then also model how a proposed change would fit into your iterations and what that means for your release planning.

4. Understand the Impact in Scope, Schedule, and Budget

It’s always important to understand whether your progress is on track.

To understand the impact of a proposed scope change, you can use a burndown chart that visualizes the ideal progress of stories vs. the actual progress.

This allows you to judge what changing the scope of the project does to your timeline.

And that, of course, tells you how your budget will be affected. Simply because you need your team longer and that is directly related to your costs.

5. Communicate Changes to the Team

Documenting and modeling scope change isn’t the end of the process — but this is where many teams run into issues. Communicating these changes to your team is a crucial step to prevent a lack of clarity and undefined objectives.

Sudden change can be jarring, so be specific throughout the change process.

Be sure to communicate changes to the right stakeholders, ideally in person or face-to-face, to allow for questions and input.

6. Have a Plan for How To Manage Scope Change

The biggest tip to remember is that in order to effectively manage change, you first need to have a plan in place. But how do you know if you have the right people assigned to the right tasks and that your plan will work? It starts with resource management.

Resource management software allows you to assign the right people to the right project at the right time. Create a request and allocate the right people all in the same place for seamless integration. Plus, see utilization broken down into percentages to ensure an even distribution of tasks. This way you can make adjustments as you see fit to ensure you implement changes efficiently.

7. Learn From Past Scope Changes

Everybody is different and offers unique perspectives and skills.

This means the right scope change process will be unique to your organization and stakeholders. And the best way to design it is to learn through experience.

If you’ve struggled with unsuccessful or disorganized scope changes in the past, consider performing a retrospective to identify the root cause of the issues you encountered. And getting to the root causes is crucial to mitigate them effectively in your new process.

Scoping Out Scope Management Tools

You know change is inevitable, even desirable.

And, so, scope changes are part of the deal for you as a project manager.

Armed with the knowledge and tips from this article, you no longer have to shun them. Instead, you can create an effective process that also keeps the risk of scope creep to a minimum.

Remember that you don’t have to accept each and every change request, but when you get one that fits your project’s goal, you can use tools like Nimble to assess the impact.

That allows you to communicate them early and clearly to all your stakeholders.

They’ll love you for it.


Lindsey Stefanka

Lindsey Stefanka

Lindsey is a freelance writer, content strategist, and business owner who strives to empower readers by writing content that educates and inspires action. Lindsey also covers marketing, business, and workplace wellness content for a variety of digital publications.

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