3 Ways to Prevent Scope Creep During a Construction Project

Businessman using binoculars at office window
Businessman using binoculars at office window. CaiaImage // Getty Images

According to project manager Mike Harding Roberts, “There is no such thing as scope creep, only scope gallop.” And while this sentiment is decidedly funny, it’s painfully true, especially in construction projects.

Project scope is the set of tasks, goals, deliverables, costs, and deadlines determined by the involved parties in planning a project. In construction, it’s imperative for the scope to be comprehensive, agreed upon, and understood by all parties involved—meaning that the client, the contractors, and even the sub-contractors all need to be in agreement regarding who is doing what, who is responsible for what, when it needs to be done, and for how much.

This agreement will be formalized in a contract.

It’s important for the scope to be well-defined—no one wants the contractor or sub-contractor to do less or more than what the client wants or is willing to pay for. If there is a change order put in, the involved parties can discuss the change to the scope and if it is deemed too large of a change to the scope it can be considered a breach of the contract.

The greatest obstacles to containing scope creep boil down to miscommunication and ambiguity. To combat these pressures, construction project managers should dedicate time to understanding just what a client wants from the project, give a thorough estimate for the project (including labor and overhead fees), and make sure all major points are agreed upon, in writing.

Understand the project’s vision

The most important conversations that a construction manager will have are with the client before a project begins.

 Tom Ewer writes,

I don’t mean this: My client would like me to build them a new web site.

I mean this: My client wants to increase online sales by 30% by creating a more user-friendly website design.

When working with a client your overruling focus must always be on the desired outcome in terms of business goals. (Italics mine).

The first step to preventing scope creep is understanding, to the best of your ability, what the stakeholder hopes to get out of the project. From remodeling a school to constructing a new office building, don’t limit yourself to asking questions about the specifics of the job, but why the stakeholders want a new building or to remodel. Understanding the purpose of the build opens up opportunities to expand the project.

In sum: use your expertise to guide your clients toward the best solutions to their construction problems. Don’t be afraid to be critical of what your client wants—the last thing you want is to make promises that are impossible to keep. Collaborate with your client to define a plan that has a high chance of success.

Create a clear estimate

By and large, your clients don’t care about the nuts and bolts of how your company produces the final result, but they are affected by your processes. They may ask you—entirely out of ignorance or innocence—to change direction mid-construction, erasing all chances for staying within scope.

This is why having a clearly outlined, written estimate is so important. It’s less important that your client signs the document—the signature is mostly used for legal purposes—than it is for them to understand what’s in the contract.

Talking through the estimate and the construction project’s process and goals can only improve your relationship with your client. Make sure that your expectations mirror what’s in the contract.

The estimate should also include a detailed outline of what materials your construction firm will need to purchase and apply. Because the estimate gives the client a peek into how expensive a change will be to implement, it will be less probable they will ask for changes.

Formalize a construction project plan

Don’t allow yourself too much flexibility when it comes to designing your project plan. Whether you’re relying on lean construction or other formal project management techniques like Agile, invest in construction management software to help facilitate a smoother construction process and to identify areas appropriate for risk management.

The software itself can help construction project managers keep track of their materials, manage deadlines, and keep their project in scope.

Part of creating a formalized plan should be creating a carefully outlined process for change orders. The Association of Construction and Development adds, “Implementing and enforcing a strong change-control process effectively puts boundaries around project requirements. It also adds a level of security that helps projects bend and evolve over time.” Thus, formal change-management processes can dramatically reduce the chance of scope creep by dis-incentivizing clients from asking for more than is reasonable.