Scope Creep: The Enemy Within and Without


Once upon a time, I made my life a living hell because of a contract that was eating up 60 to 70 hours of my weeks. This left no time for personal projects like this blog, or my fiction, or even my usual schedule of workouts and general family time.

Long-time readers who are familiar with the reasons I enjoy writing for a living will notice how that situation is in direct opposition to my goals as a writer, as a parent and as a husband.

Which begs a simple question:

How did I let this happen?

The simple answer: Scope Creep.

Scope creep is when an assignment or job starts at level of effort and swells to A+X level of effort. In my case, a ghostwriting job that started as writing a book grew into writing, project management, staff training, interviewing sources and in some cases basic transcription and dictation. The client is a demanding dude, but mostly I have only myself to blame. It was me who said “yes” when asked to take on the extra duties.

Whoever’s fault it was (mine), the end result truly sucked. This blog post is my attempt to help you avoid such massive scope creep. As with most of what I do, my hope is for you to learn in five minutes of reading a lesson that took me months to learn.

1. Set Clear Definitions

I ended up in this situation in part because I didn’t define my job clearly enough. The contract named my deliverables, but didn’t deal well with process — which my client took to mean any task that could be even tangentially tied to the deliverable was my job. Why wouldn’t he? That was free labor.

Clearly defining not only my deliverables, but also my specific contributions to those deliverables, would have prevented or at least restricted the creep that happened with this assignment.

2. Itemize Fees

I didn’t do this at all during the assignment we’re talking about, but I’ve read it as a strong solution in my subsequent research. In many ways, this is a process for Set Clear Definitions. 

When you draft your proposal and contract, list specific prices for specific stages, tasks and products. This clearly defines your roles and responsibilities. If there are other tasks you think the client might ask you for, you can include prices for those in an appendix or addendum so your client knows exactly how much the scope creep is going to cost.

3. Set a Change Process

For the last three months, the change process in my contract has consisted of my client asking for more and me saying “yes.” The end result is a gig that should have paid $7,000 a month paying closer to $2,500 a month. 

Instead, have your proposal and contract include a specific process for changing the scope of the project and your involvement in it. That way, when the client says “how about adding this or changing that?” you have an answer that ensures you get extra pay for extra work.








4. Say “Yes And”

“Yes And” is a concept from improvisational theater that says you should never say “no” when an acting partner gives you a cue. If you don’t love the cue, use “Yes and” to change the scene to something you like better.

Because we’ve bought into the idea of the customer is always right and often want to keep our clients happy, we often stop at “Yes.”  But “Yes, and that’s going to push the deadline back by a week” or “Yes, at my usual hourly rate” lets you say yes while retaining your bottom line.

5. Get Paid Early

My situation got worse when the client then chose to withhold payment because we were behind schedule — a situation owed entirely to the scope creep he demanded. This put me in a position where, because I had done work for which I hadn’t been paid, I had to do more work essentially for free before I could collect the money I was owed.

This is why all contracts should include a sizable payment up front, so that you’re always working a little bit behind what you’ve earned. Without this, you are always negotiating from a position of weakness. Sure, it’s better to only take on clients with whom this won’t be an issue…but that’s not a realistic expectation.

6. Create a Phase 2

This is another idea from research I’ve done since falling into the situation I just got out of, and one I wished I’d known about back in January. The idea is to answer all requests for change with “That’s a great idea. We’ll slate that for phase 2, when what we’re working on now is finished.”

Phase two is like having a fictional supervisor you have to check in with. It ends the current conversation and lets you get to work and get paid…without having to outright refuse a client.

7. Know When to Say “No”

At the end of the day, this is what I had to do. Sometimes, you have to eat the cost of work unpaid and be willing to tell a client “this far, no further.” It’s hard to want to do, since there’s money uncollected and that client might try to torpedo you with potential clients. 

But sometimes it’s necessary. In my case, it was “No. You don’t get more work done until we renegotiate the contract.” This no came after five requests to do so, which he ignored. We’re scheduled to have that renegotiation in a couple of days — so we could end up with a happy ending after all.  Or not. We’ll see.


Ultimately, most of this advice falls into two categories:

  1. Communicate clearly at the beginning
  2. Communicate effectively during the process

That’s not exactly new advice, but it bears repeating and we can all use a reminder about where we can apply it. I hope this helps you avoid the problematic kind of relationship I just had to end.

Thanks for listening.

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