The Slippery Slope of Creeping Scope

steep-slopeUncontrolled scope creep costs you money.

When a client asks you to do something that wasn’t part of the original agreement it’s called scope creep.

Some scope creep is relatively minor and doesn’t really make much difference to your freelancing business. Doing a little bit of extra work for a client can be a good way to build up some good will.

In other instances, however, scope creep can drastically increase your workload and negatively impact your bottom line. These are the cases of scope creep that can really damage your freelancing business if they are not addressed.

In this post, we’ll explore some options that a freelancer has for dealing with scope creep.

Dealing with Scope Creep in Short-term Projects

Scope creep is fairly easy to deal with in one time or short-term projects.
The key is in the wording of your agreement with the client.

Your agreement should be specific about the work that you will do and any rework that may be required. The more specific your agreement, the less likely it is that you’ll have to deal with scope creep problems in a one time or short-term project.

For example, you can limit the number of times the client may revise your work (not including revisions due to your mistakes, of course) or you can specify a date by which all requests for change must be turned in.

Be clear that anything additional or after the agreed-upon date is out of scope and can be considered a new project.

Dealing with Scope Creep in Long-term Projects

Scope creep can be tougher to deal with in long-term or ongoing projects, probably because it can creep up a little bit at a time without a freelancer realizing what is happening.

Lots of little changes can really add up!

Before you even realize it, the project has doubled in size and your pay has not kept pace.

I recently read about a freelancer whose regular freelancing gig kept expanding over an eighteen month period to the point where he went from working a normal eight to five hours to nearly working 24/7.

Handling scope creep from a long-time client can be tricky. For one thing, these long-term clients can be a freelancer’s bread and butter–a kind of job security in a very insecure economy. It’s understandable that a freelancer might hesitate to say anything to jeopardize their relationship with a client who gives them recurring work.

Scope creep on a long-term project is also harder to identify because it tends to happen a little bit at a time. While one minor little change may not have much impact on a freelancer, a dozen minor little changes can make quite a bit of difference.

There are steps that a smart freelancer can take to control scope, though.

Five Steps to Controlling Scope

Fortunately, it is possible to manage scope for both small and large freelancing projects. Here are five steps to take:

  1. Know how much time you are spending on your project–Far too many freelancers don’t keep good records of how they use their time. You won’t notice scope creep if you don’t really know how much time you are spending on a project. Even if your client isn’t paying you by the hour, you should be tracking how long each task is taking you to complete.
  2. Set a limit on how much time you are willing to spend doing extra work–Decide in advance how much extra work you will do for a client. This is a very individual decision and may vary from project to project and from freelancer to freelancer. This isn’t something you need to necessarily tell the client, just know when a little more is too much.
  3. Keep a list of changes–Even if a requested change that wasn’t part of the original agreement seems small, make a note of it. Over time, these little requests tend to build up. If you record each client request then if your project starts to spiral out of control you will have an insight into what might be causing the problem.
  4. Evaluate frequently–Periodically, compare the time that you are spending on the project to the time that you thought you would spend. If there’s a significant difference, ask yourself why. Did you underestimate the amount of work the project would require? Did the client add additional requirements to the project?
  5. Speak up sooner rather than later–If you do notice that too many changes have been made to a project, the sooner you speak up about it the better. If you wait too long to speak up, the client may believe that it isn’t a very big problem. You can say something like, “that additional step added a lot more work to the project than we thought. To do it using this step it will cost $X more.”

It’s important to note that scope creep isn’t always done deliberately. Many clients aren’t fully aware of the additional work that they are piling onto the freelancer or truly don’t realize how long it takes to do things.

If a client is satisfied with the freelancer’s work so far, they are often more than happy to do the fair thing and pay additional charges once the scope creep is pointed out. Or, they may decide that the changes aren’t really needed after all.

How Do You Handle Scope Creep?

Have you had to face scope creep on any of your projects? How did you deal with it?

Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Image by philliecasablanca


  1. says

    If you are doing this work for a business they know that time equals money and so do changes. A lot of people think that just because you are a freelancer it means that you will do whatever it takes to make a client happy – for free.

    But I usually set the limits at the start, and when people want to make changes that differ from the set quote, I let them know that any changes will include additional costs – and you start to see how important those changes really are.

  2. says

    Nice post!

    We have a price list on which every product we do is defined.
    As a webdesign agency we have special prices for pages, counters, redesign etc.
    In the end we sum up the project and receive the money from the client.

    Sometimes we are also doing some flyers or posters as scope creep but this work will be paid hourly so it is more expensive cause it is not our main work.

  3. says

    The ‘speak up sooner rather than later’ is key to controlling scope creep. The client will assume that if you did THIS small change that wasn’t included, then you’ll be willing to do THAT other change, maybe not as small, also. You don’t even have to charge for the little changes if you don’t want, but you SHOULD let them know that it’s outside the terms of your agreement and other changes may incur charges. That way they’ll be prepared.

  4. says

    Great read! Always being extremely thorough upfront when scoping the project will help you more easily spot creep later in the process.

  5. says

    This is a great topic. Personally I keep a very detailed log book of how many minutes I have worked on a project. When a client asks for something outside of the predefined parameters of the work for hire contract, it is really easy to assign a cost to that addition. The majority of my clients have never balked at this approach, but used it as a stepping stone for future projects.

  6. says

    It comes down to the points you outlined: are your clients following what you’ve both agreed upon and is that agreement clear in outlining definitive boundaries and actionable steps that would trigger extra fees?

    Have those two in place and scope creep won’t be all that much of an issue.

  7. says

    Thanks to everyone who commented! Amberly, thanks for the bookmark.

    In my experience, scope creep rarely happens in small or one-time projects. It is the large, ongoing projects that seem to have the most problems with it.

    I’ve even thought about increasing my rate to cover unexpected scope creep…

  8. says

    This is the reason why I started charging hourly instead of fixed price. I still give estimates on how long it should take me but I round up my time at 15 mins and keep track of the work I’ve done in an excel file. The clients are ok with charging like that

  9. says

    I have a section right in my quote that states any work not mentioned in the quote will be billed at an hourly of $100 and due up front .That really saves my butt and cuts down on unneccessary nitpicking :)

  10. says

    Thanks Lucian and Amber!

    Those are both interesting ways of dealing with the problem.

    I don’t charge by the hour simply because I don’t want to get into the argument–you should be able to do that more quickly. I do have an hourly rate in mind, however, when I quote jobs.

    That’s a really interesting clause you put in your contracts Amber. It would be interesting to see how well my clients would receive a similar clause.

  11. Hilary says

    Clear project sheets and change order forms come in handy. I use the change order forms when someone is asking for something new that may add cost or that’s a complete 180 from what’s agreed upon even if it doesn’t add cost. People take the change order forms more seriously too.

  12. says

    I typically don’t like to set out too many firm “rules” when working with a client. I feel that it makes the relationship seem to structured and that many find that to be a turn off. However, you make a very good point about extra work being a slippery slope. It’s tough to be accommodating with your clients while still maintaining boundaries. I usually charge hourly and that does eliminate many of these issues.

  13. says

    Thanks Hilary and Richard!

    Richard, you’re the second person who has mentioned going to charging hourly from flat rate. Do you ever have a client question how long it takes you to do something?

    Hilary–Do you explain to your clients beforehand that you will be using change order forms? I ask because I used this technique when I was an employee, but I haven’t really heard of too many freelancers using it. That being said, I think it’s a good idea. It could work well, especially if the client is familiar with change orders.

  14. says

    Good articles…the individuality will be gained for the better source of action with the valuable and managerial process of the freelance….good points to be taken into mind..keep sharing.

  15. says

    Sure set of planning is needed each and every activity. Especially for freelancing project, we should assign certain goals. Sure set of rules have been given in this post for the betterment of the freelance service. It was so useful to me

  16. says

    In the past, some of my best clients have requested additions, help and other extra help and I had willingly obliged. It’s sort of a second nature to them and they don’t see it as taking advantage of you.

    Just be sure to mention and get an approval for the cost for the changes/additions/fixes in writing, whether a change order or an email. That will stop the scope creep cold. I’ve rarely had any complaints by doing so either.

    I like Amber’s advice above, too. Will have to try that!

  17. says

    Noob here, please bear with me.

    I am very interested in knowing how you guys quote for projects. Do you list down all specific requirements in the quotation? Or just the generic requirements? How many meetings with the client before you come up with a quotation?

    We have difficulty quoting. We do web apps. [I think web apps are harder to quote than websites.] Our clients ask us to make a quotation for their software after the first or second meeting. This is quite difficult since I think one will never know the scope of the project after the Requirements phase (which could even be billed separately, you think?). So we end up putting “general” requirements in the quotation, which leaves us short-changed after the project ends because the client will always think of other features to add or modify after the quotation is made. Or because we incorrectly estimate a certain feature to be easy to implement, when in fact, takes a long time to develop.

    As a countermeasure, we are using a Functional Design specs document, which is the output of our Requirements phase. We let the client sign it, “Any modifications not included in this document will be charged separately as another project.” That took care of scope creep after the Requirements phase. But not after the quotation phase.

    Any ideas?

  18. says

    Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences and tips for dealing with this problem.

    Paul, the more specific you can get in your quote the less likely it is that you will have problems with scope creep. Also, it is best to get a written agreement or even a contract as opposed to an oral agreement.

    Best wishes!

  19. Hilary says

    I try to keep everything as simple as possible for my clients and yet have a very complex system for projects. I charge hourly rates but provide a project sheet and estimate at the beginning of projects with a price range and clear details. The price range gives some small wiggle room and also lets people know in advance a dollar amount instead of focusing on my per hour rates. I do explain this all upfront and make it clear that the more organized and more decisive they are the more likely we are to come in at the lower price. I also tell them that I will let them know if any requests are major changes, I don’t say “change order” specifically.

    For some clients and certain changes, I’m ok with just an e-mail confirmation especially when it’s something that’s not going to exceed that initial estimate price. The change order I use on major changes that would be hard to go back on or in some cases when clients are harder to work with or more fickle (you know them, one day they want green and the next day they ask why it’s not yellow – I want them to sign off on their choices just so they take their requests more seriously even if it’s not going to exceed the budget.)

    I have had people get the change order and approve them and the additional cost, I’ve also had people get the change order and say “Ok, this is going to add to the price, it’s not THAT important. I think we’ll stick with what we planned.” :)

  20. says

    Hi there …. thank you for this article.
    I have landed myself the mother of all creeping scopes and finally have it under control after huge unpaid time loss … to make my situation clear I wrote a detailed invoice describing every process and the time it took and what he would have had to pay. He now seems to understand this and we’re on track. Yet, today a brandnew surprise! He would like me to send him (he does not know the applications I am using Photoshop and InDesign) … the original files …. “to play around in” while I am busy with the project. Any advise please as I am a loss of words and staring perplexed at the request. Have I mentioned that this particular client is now at the clever stage where he thinks he is a designer? Please advise.

  21. says

    Recently, I didnt give lots of consideration to leaving comments on site page articles and have placed comments even much less. Reading via your nice posting, will assist me to do so sometimes.

  22. David Platt says

    I would like to add one point that Laura covered but did not emphasize. I believe that creating a cut-off date is very important. Sometimes a client will have long delays when they cannot get feedback or assets for you.

    During these times, setting a date in your agreement stating when you will no longer be available for the project (without further negotiation) might be important.

    You can’t stay on a project forever, regardless of payment. You may have other clients, responsibilities, vacations etc that need your time.

    There is a very interesting article about a new kind of client billing that is worth a read and relates to this post:


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