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.

6 Ways I Screwed Up Big Time

I spend a lot of time on this blog telling people how to do stuff, as if I’m such a high-and-mighty, super-duper success with a cherry on top. I’m not that.

I have had a lot of success in this writing thing, and some success lately in speaking and coaching about writing and business. I’m proud of those things, because I’ve worked hard and practiced discipline and applied what I’ve learned.

I’m happy to say I’m pretty awesome that way. But folks who’ve seen me speak might recognize what has become one of my taglines:

Here’s what I learned by making mistakes, so you don’t have to make them yourself. 

In the spirit of that, I wanted to admit some of my biggest failures and mistakes. These aren’t one-and-done anecdotes. They’re habits I need to break, or habits I can keep but only if I adjust some of my life goals. For better or worse, here they are.

1. Too Many Ideas

I have a lot of ideas. A lot of ideas. Many of them are terrible ideas. Many more are good ideas, but not good ideas for me to do. Some are good ideas, even good ideas for me to do, but not ideas I should take on right now. And even the ones that are good, good for me, and good for now will fail if I try to do them all at once.

And yet I keep trying to do them all at once. Or I walk away from an 80% done project to take on something new and shiny. Of all things in my professional (and honestly my personal) life this is the worst habit I have. What’s worse is, as I plan and schedule my quarters I can’t help myself from saying “Well, all right, let’s let you three in anyway.”

2. Not Keeping the Front Door Open

Some small business advice people use the metaphor of the front door and the back door to describe the two kinds of customers. You keep your “front door” open — meaning you’re always welcoming in new clients. You keep your “back door” closed — meaning you retain all the clients you can.

Despite what I said in #1, I can overfocus at times. When my dance card is full, I consistently quit looking for new work. This becomes a problem when the existing assignments end, since the money dries up with nobody on deck. What’s worse is how easy this is to solve. It’s just a matter of putting the hours in.

3. Planning as Procrastination

My heterosexual life partner Matt Zanger (and my lovely and talented better half Rachel Letofsky) will both make fun of me for saying this out loud. They consider me an overplanner, and I consider them both underplanners.

I talk a lot in this blog about the importance of planning (I even did several articles about choosing my favorite planner). None of that is false. Planning is as vitally important to succeeding in your life plan as proper driving directions are to taking a successful road trip.

But sometimes I overdo it. I spend time planning and overplanning, because planning is comforting. And sometimes I plan again when I should be sticking to my earlier plan. It’s hard for me to admit that I plan too much, but at times…I….um…ergh…erk…plan too much.

4. The Shoeless Cobbler

I make a huge deal on this blog, in my books, and in my presentations about the importance of a good website, a solid mailing list, and systematic, tactical social media. I do that because they are hugely important.

But do I practice what I preach? My website is out of date stylistically. My newsletter gets updated on schedule (some of the time). And my social media is random. Hit and miss. I tell myself that’s okay because their job is to get me work, and I’m not doing it because I have so much work.

But still.

What makes this work is the one time I really nailed this, I had five books all in the top ten of their Amazon category just from the tactical social media part of it. This stuff is powerful juju, and could skyrocket my career. It’s there for the taking, and will still be there next week.

5. Saying Yes Too Much

This is so common  there are books about it. People give in to social pressure to take on more and more responsibilities and activities because we all want to be liked. Then you start dropping balls, or being surly while fulfilling those responsibilities, or generally screwing the pooch because you overcommitted.

I am really, really bad about this. For me it’s a double-edged sword because my two superpowers are boundless energy and hyperfast work speed. For a long time, there wasn’t such a thing as “too many commitments.” I got it all done, and done well.

But I’m older now, with kids and a family and friends and all manner of hands on my time. I recently made myself stop pretending I could get any work done on weekends. It never happens. So baby steps, baby steps.

6. “Too Busy to Sleep”

I wrote an article once upon a time about the ROI (Return On Investment) of putting time into self-care. One of the best, most clearly proven examples, was getting enough sleep. Multiple studies show that sleeping 7 hours instead of 6 makes you at least two hours’ worth of more productive in an 8 hour workday. Six hours instead of five is even better.

This is something I know, both from research and personal experience. And yet one in the morning finds me hitting the Netflix feeder bar more often than I care to admit. Like the first item on this list, what’s even more frustrating is how easy it would be to act on my knowledge here and just kill that bad habit.

These are the things that keep me in the job I have, instead of the job I want. I’m working to fix each of them. In fact, a monthly piece on how I’m fixing them item-by-item is part of my plan for the coming year. I’ll close today with a pair of quotes that have always been dear to my heart, and apply to these screwups and screwups of all kinds.

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.”

That’s one of my very favorite Japanese proverbs (“Nanakorobi yaoki”).  Or, as Rocky Balboa put it while talking with his son:

“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Either way, success in all things isn’t a matter of not making mistakes. It’s a matter of learning from those mistakes and making each mistake less often.

How have you screwed up? What are you doing to screw up in that way less often? How can I (or anybody else in the blog community here) help?

Give a Feedback Sandwich? Get Punched in the Neck

Throat Punch 2The “Feedback Sandwich” is a management tool that got popular in the 90s and you still see it around, used by management consultants who are at the trailing edge of their profession and by well-meaning but deluded communication people like marriage counselors.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably experienced it. When you need to tell somebody about some room for improvement, you’re supposed to stick it between two compliments. For example, if you have a buddy who keeps showing up late for stuff, you could say:

  • Comment One: Man, I really like hanging out with you because you say such funny and wise stuff.
  • Comment Two: I really wish you’d show up on time, though. It’s kind of inconsiderate when you leave me hanging.
  • Comment Three: Because I just know when you show up I’m gonna have a really great time.

Feedback Sandwich

See? You sandwich the less fun feedback between two pieces of fun feedback. That’s where it gets its name. It’s a fairly simple way to make a bitter pill easier to swallow.

And it Makes You Deserve a Punch in the Neck

Yes, I can see how moderately intelligent, well-meaning people could use a feedback sandwich. That still makes them fully deserving of a roundhouse punch square in the damn neck. Here’s why:

  1. It’s based on the condescending assumption that the person you’re talking to can’t take his or her medicine straight. We’re grown-ass adults here. If we can’t hear and act on suggestions to become more awesome, what is the point?
  2. It wastes my time. By adding the other two comments, you triple how long it takes to have this conversation. Get to the point and let me commence to acting on your suggestions.
  3. The compliments are (usually) insincere. You’re only mentioning them because you’re doing the sandwich. We know it. You know it. Tell me I’m awesome because I’m awesome. Not because you identified a way in which I am not awesome.
  4. Even when they are sincere, you’re still doing the sandwich. So they seem insincere. There aren’t a lot of better ways to make somebody doubt how much you value the good work they do.
  5. We know what you’re doing. All of us. Every time. You know how you feel when a sales guy tries some obvious old sales trick on you and you catch him at it? You know how that ruins the trick and usually blows the sale? That’s exactly how we feel when you do the sandwich.

Alternative: Atkins Feedback

The Atkins Diet helped a metric shitton (approximately 1.1 imperial buttloads) of people lose weight by basically letting men eat the way we would anyway if our wives weren’t watching. Meat and cheese all day long, all day strong. Hamburger hold the buns, please! Sandwich, hold the bread!

You see where this is going. Get lean and mean and peel the bread away from your weak sister feedback sandwich. This means doing one of two things, depending on where you are in the feedback giving food chain.

  • If You Are Giving Feedback have the respect to assume the person you’re talking to can (a) take it like an adult and (b) see through transparent mind games. Stand and deliver, then let the subject commence to fixing what you needed to talk about.
  • If You Are Receiving Feedback respect yourself enough to admit that you have flaws. We all have flaws. And remember that we can’t ruthlessly eradicate those flaws if the people in our lives don’t call us on our bullshit. Take the feedback as the constructive criticism it’s meant as and don’t go all Sylvia Plaith on us.

Easy enough? Be honest with people and yourself. Use that honesty to become the better person you want to be, rather than merely the person you are.

Readers, share your most hilarious experience with the feedback sandwich. Anybody who can honestly report neck punching gets a free copy of one of my books.

What’s Your Test of Humanity?

Alert readers have probably figured out by now that I’m a huge nerd.

As a huge nerd, like all nerds, I read Dune. I loved Dune. Early in Dune, protagonist Paul Atraedes takes the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity. It works like this.

Step One: Make a high tech box that, if one puts a hand in the box, stimulates the nerves so that the hand feels just like it’s being burnt to the bone…though no damage is actually done.

Step Two: Take a subject (in this case Paul Atraedes). Explain exactly what the box does. Make certain the subject knows that no matter what the hand feels like, no harm is being done.

Step Three: Tell the subject to put a hand in the box.

Step Four: Kill the subject (in this case using a needle full of cyanide called the Gob Jabbar) if the hand comes out of the box before a certain time has passed.

The Bene Gesserit (notable authors of the Litany Against Fear and sundry galaxy-spanning conspiracies) use the Test of Humanity to tell if somebody can place their awareness and rational thought above their natural instincts. Can you let pain happen to your hand because you know it’s not being hurt? If so, the Bene Gesserit consider you human. If not, well…it’s cyanide and tsk tsk.

This got me to thinking…

What was your Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity?

Part of being a grown-ass, adult human is being able to take your lizard brain and tell it to sit the hell down and shut the hell up. It happens when a customer at work is less than polite, when your romantic partner is less than kind, when your kids are less than responsible. It’s part of grown-up life, so much so that most of us just do it automatically as part of our daily responsibilities.

But lots of us can think back and remember the first time (or one of the first times) we successfully did it when it was really, really hard.

That one time, often in our early 20s, when we wanted to rage or cry or snark or fight…but knew we shouldn’t. Then we made the conscious decision to keep our hands in the box of pain and, as the Bene Gesserit witches might say, choose to be a human being. 

Chances are you weren’t having your hand burnt to a crisp, and you probably didn’t have a poison needle against your neck (either that, or your life is way, way more interesting than mine). Chances are you were dealing with something other people might have found boring. But you didn’t find it boring. You found it stressful, emotionally fraught, painful, maybe humiliating.

But you held it together.

You chose to be a human being.

So I ask you:

  1. What was your Test of Humanity?
  2. Afterward, how did passing help you deal with the next challenge in your life? And the next?

We’re all of us way more powerful than we suspect. My Test of Humanity (and some harder tests later in my life) help me to remember that when the next bad stretch hits.

Have you thought about yours?

8 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The only good news in this situation is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The only good news in this situation is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid screwing this essential task up.

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, make a phone call. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

The average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work, and process, and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Aim for terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. Just. Be. Nice.

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.



Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a screwed up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.