Everything but the kitchen sink – Redux

Most of our posts are aimed at our clientele, but this one is for you, fellow designers, creatives, and developers. The subject is website project scope creep.

There are several points of vulnerability to scope creep for a large-scale project:

  • The Proposal / Statement of Work
  • The Client Organization
  • Your Organization

1) The Proposal
These are large categories, but starting with the original Statement of Work (SOW), Proposal, and contract, Whatever you call it, this is the document that defines the original scope of work. This is the foundation, the game plan, the nitty-gritty. If it ain’t in here, you are SOL on your SOW. Take the time to talk to your potential clients in detail about what they want, how they envision it, every aspect of it. Perhaps you might consider a discrete definition or scoping phase in which you and the clients spend some time (billable, of course) to work out al the fine details of key functionality in each area. Then once everyone has signed off on the same finalized plan, you proceed to actual design and development as a separate billable project.

We have found that clients have a tendency to point to emails and verbal discussions to say, “But we said we wanted it just like Nordstrom!” thinking that said it all. Or they say, “But why would we want a new website without [name your own cool bell and whistle]” And frankly, as a project manager, all I have to go on is the actual document that spells out our mission. I will concede that sometimes there are implied tasks not outlined specifically. For example, if we’re doing an e-commerce site, usually a Magento project, if we’re tasked with developing the site from scratch or revamping an existing dev site and launching it, then we will include troubleshooting the default Magento checkout process. But, something like Magento is really a complex beast, and there are so many variables to uniquely configure that scope creep is a common danger. (“The invoice is cutting off on my printer. can you look into that?” “Can you do a favicon?” ” I can’t see it.” “I’m not getting my transactional emails.” “I don’t like the theme after all, I was thinking of changing it.” (this one after installing custom query.) “I don’t remember how to change my homepage blocks and now I broke them.”

These seemingly minor QA issues each seem innocuous but can quickly add up to 100 extra hours. Did you say it would look good in mobile or that it would be mobile responsive? Big difference! Does your client understand the difference? Did you explain at the outset? Did you clearly define a milestone past which all time would then be considered hourly support? Did you promise something without fully understanding what was involved or what your client had in mind? Sometimes we’ve found that clients never actually understood something we described because they lacked the technical savvy and therefore assumed something totally different than we intended.

We also love wireframes, sitemaps, change orders, and definition documents. The more you have written down, the better off you are in managing the boundaries of the project. Signatures are good too.

We’re open to suggestions on how this can be better managed without ruining decent working relationships. We know that clients don’t want to feel nickel-and-dimed, but hey, those nickels and dimes sure can add up on our end.  


2) The Clients
Not all clients are created equal. If you’ve had a shingle up for a while, you start to notice distinctions between startups, family businesses, established businesses, small organizations, Fortune1000 companies, non-profits, and solo entrepreneurs. The levels of dysfunction / function vary, as does technical understanding, budget, and internal communication and process on the client side. In a perfect scenario, your client might be big enough to have a marketing director or e-commerce manager, with a budget and experience as your point of contact. They would have a clear process for decision-making on their end. They have some understanding and experience with this type of work. Perfect! You can stop reading this article now. What you have likely experienced is the gamut of client types. Perhaps you’ve worked with a company with a father-child or spouses at the helm, and they argue against each other, and you are held hostage to their drama and inability to come to terms with agreements. Or maybe you’ve worked with startups that promise you they’ll be huge in the future and you should be grateful to get on the ground floor with them before they hit it big. Meanwhile, they expect freebies, discounts up the wazoo, and when you try to fight scope creep with a responsible, tidy Change Order, as you should, they put up resistance to the additional cost and claim it should all be included. Delicacy and tact can be required to get through this gauntlet in one piece. You will have to make some tough calls as to what’s more important – your company’s bottom line this month or salvaging a long term relationship with the client, and possibly your reputation.

Recently we had a good sized project with a fairly large government agency. The project was well defined and well managed. But the clients had a team of a dozen stakeholders that needed to weigh in on all decisions. Two people were identified as the points of communication. The project fell apart for various reasons. We saw it coming early on, but until it did, all we could do was present our best work, be persistent, and diplomatic, and point to our clearly defined project scope along the way. The clients turned out to have a dysfunctional decision-making process, so their own deadline would never be met and then, it turned out they were focused on the wrong goals and the project had to be scrapped. They asked us if we could repurpose the work done to date for the new, very different goal, which they perceived as similar. We said, nope, sorry, we delivered what you asked for. Let’s close out this project and we can start a new one, with new goals and defined scope. That client disappeared, and although it might have been a good-sized budget, I can promise you it would have gone over and missed the deadline, so really, we saved money bidding them adieu.


3) Look in the Mirror
Now comes the tough part. What is your role in scope creep? Are you responsible for proposals? Are you being too vague? Have you estimated them thoughtfully? Have you looked at some recently completed similar projects to look at actual hours put in, not the estimated? How does your organization respond when the clients ask for changes, revisions, new features, customizations that are out of scope? Do you call it? Are you too nice and you just bend to their will? You and your company will have to soul search as to your values and your relationships with clients. Of course you want to nurture positive, open, productive working relationships with your good clients and sometimes you will have to absorb some overages. But you’ll know when you’re being exploited (if you’ve put in three times as many hours as you can bill, you have a problem) and it could be time to draw a line in the sand and call it. (to casually mix metaphors).


Final Word:
If you don’t use contracts, you should start. Make sure you hire a lawyer to look over your terms of agreement. We were inspired to button down our contracts by this video put out by Mule Design in San Francisco:

So that’s the word in 2013 on project bloat, feature creep, scope creep, and the blob from the black lagoon that wants to eat your soul and.. oh wait, that’s another blog post.

Rachel Panush
by Rachel Panush
Rachel is the Senior Lead Project Manager at Executionists Inc. in Marina del Rey, CA.
Posted: June 21, 2013