The Never Ending Project: How to Prevent Scope Creep

The NeverEnding Story movie poster
The Never Ending Story movie poster

Have you ever worked on a project that would… not… end!?

Me, too.

Poorly organized fixed-rate projects quickly turn into hourly-rate eating monsters that even Falkor couldn’t save you from.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope Creep is any work requested by the client that isn’t included within your original agreement. It can happen at any point in the project.

The smallest little rabbit trail conversation with a client can lead to a whole list of to-dos that are way beyond the budget and deadline.

Just because the project isn’t finished, doesn’t mean that all client requests are fulfilled. Consider the context of their requests.

If the requests do not fall within the services you’ve agreed to provide, those requests are scope creep. 

You don’t want to waste precious time on tasks that are out of scope without getting compensated.

There is no reason to work for free, and it’s no fun to see your hourly rate diminish as you burn the midnight oil over and over to finish that one last client request.

Let’s solve this problem.

1. Get a signed contract for every project.

Your first line of defense is a solid contract that explains the exact process and deliverables for every project. State clearly what this project includes, how long it will take, and how much it will cost. Also, and most importantly, make sure you include how much you will charge for any work outside of the project scope. That’s right, a Scope Creep Fee! This has saved my tail on several occasions. Tell them that their request isn’t covered in the current contract, but offer to create a new contract for the extra work. Or simply charge an hourly rate to cover anything outside of scope, like I do.

2. Enforce the contract throughout the project.

The best most detailed contract in the world is worthless if you don’t enforce it. At the end of the day, you have to AT LEAST deliver whatever  is written in that document. Refer to it often. You both signed it. It’s legally binding.

3. Get proof of their approval.

This is something I could probably get better at. I don’t have a formal signature-based process for approving each phase of a project. But it wouldn’t hurt. This came up while I was chatting with a designer friend who asked me this question:

“How do you typically send design proofs to clients, especially when there are a ton of on-going changes?”

My response:

“Email… and I have it spelled out in the contract how many changes/revisions are allowed before additional charges are added”


“I was thinking there might be a website that could upload a proof straight out of photoshop/illustrator… the client gets a link that they can keep checking back with”


“There are services like that… for example, or GetSignOff.”


“Nice. Exactly what i’m looking for.”


“I’ve also used Basecamp‘s messaging system to send proofs since you can upload images”




Do yourself a favor. Don’t work for anyone without knowing exactly what they expect of you, when it’s due, and who gives final approval.  Getting these administrative details out of the way allows you to focus on what you do best… your job.

Do any of you expert freelancers have some wisdom you’d like to share?

How do you prevent scope creep?

Any methods or tools you can suggest?


2 responses to “The Never Ending Project: How to Prevent Scope Creep”

  1. if you want to avoid scope creep, build only your own products.

    1. There ya go! But even then, I could see myself becoming my own worst enemy. On my own stuff I can be the worst scope creeper of all. I think its even harder to keep myself accountable to personal goals, budgets and timelines since there's no one to call me out if I go over.

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