How to See Scope Creep Coming--Without a Crystal Ball

Written By: Cat McClintock
  • 2/27/2017

Has this happened to you before? Your team has built a great prototype that meets the specs you were given. You send it up the chain for approval. Word comes back down that your toaster design is okay, but what the client really needs it to do now is reside in the freezer side of the refrigerator and turn water into ice. And it needs to be done on the original schedule.

Can a toaster ever be an ice maker?

Can’t you just change out the coils?

Okay, so it’s not always this extreme, but every engineering manager dreads scope creep. It throws you off your carefully constructed schedule, and it forces you to use resources (like staff and budget) that you didn’t allocate to the project. It may feel like it’s totally out of your control, but there are some things you can do to keep the creep in check.

Where does scope creep come from?

If you think back to the times when your project schedule went off the rails, you can probably chalk them up to one of these three things.


The world is full of people who don’t know what they want until you give them what they don’t want. They look at your prototype and say “this is great, but. . .” and then proceed to tell you that it’s all wrong, even though you gave them precisely what they asked for. If this has happened to you before, you know exactly who it is that does this, whether it’s a boss or a client.


Sometimes a schedule is overly ambitious, or you find out in the middle of it that you’re going to have to add extra steps or new features. Or maybe it was crafted with best-case scenarios in mind. Too much optimism in the planning process can cause you any number of problems later.

Poor fortune

And sometimes scope creep comes down to plain old bad luck. While you were designing that new generator, California came up with new emissions standards out of the blue. Back to the Model Tree.

Understand history, or you’re doomed to repeat it

The most effective way to deal with scope changes is to find them before they find you. How do you do that? By going through your past projects and figuring out when your schedule became a wistful memory.

What people asked for something more or different in the middle of your last few projects? Are you working with them again on this one? Proactively manage the situation by talking to them early and often. Try to get a better sense of how what they actually want differs from what it is they’re telling you. You know they are going to change their minds. See if you can get them to change before they dynamite your schedule.

Post mortems are essential to good management. Learn from your past, and figure out where your last project proved overambitious. Were the delays unavoidable one-off issues? Or was your planning too rosy? It might be wise to stretch out your timeline for those parts of your next project.

You may not be able to do much to prevent poor fortune, but you can go back and look at the times when bad luck got in your way. Are there possibilities you can have a contingency plan for?

What other problems could send your project train off the tracks?

As you well know, scope creep is just one schedule killer that managers face in the course of a project. Lots of other things can cause headaches that are just as big or bigger, like communication failures and squishy metrics.

Find out more about how to stop these and other potential problems in our new e-book, Mastering the Urgent: 9 Strategies for Tackling Tough Product Development Timelines. Take a few minutes to read it today—and spare yourself some stress later.

Download the Mastering the Urgent eBook

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About the Author

Cat McClintock

Cat McClintock edits the Creo and Mathcad blogs for PTC.  She has been a writer and editor for 15+ years,  working for CAD, PDM, ERP, and CRM software companies. Prior to that, she edited science journals for an academic publisher and aligned optical assemblies for a medical device manufacturer. She holds degrees in Technical Journalism, Classics, and Electro-Optics. She loves talking to PTC customers and learning about the interesting work they're doing and the innovative ways they use the software.