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Project Management

How to Handle Scope Changes in Project Management

Developing a practical approach to better prepare for scope change will help you ensure every project is a success.

Updated 2/23/2023

Developing a practical approach to better prepare for scope change will help you ensure every project is a success. 

  • Has every project you’ve been involved with delivered exactly what your client asked for during the initial phases of scope definition? 

  • Are your clients always completely satisfied with the deliverables at project completion because you delivered exactly what they wanted? 

  • Does your team always fully understand the scope of what you are being asked to deliver before work begins? 

Chances are, you answered “no” to one, if not all, of these questions. That’s because projects fail. And often, the failure is a result of poor scope change management. 

While you may do your best to learn from the mistakes of past projects, it’s important to examine the impact poor scope change control may have on your project success. 

Project challenges influence perceptions about your project manager, project team, and your firm overall. Developing a practical approach to better prepare for the inevitable reality of scope change will help you ensure every project is a success. 

Why Do Projects Fail?

The top causes of project failure are: 

  • Unsatisfactory or incomplete requirements 

  • Poorly defined project scope resulting in scope creep 

  • A lack of structured project management methodology 

  • Unclear goals and objectives 

  • Inadequate resource planning

  • Poor communication across an organization

  • Lack of change control

  • Inaccurate cost and time estimates

  • Unrealistic expectations 

Regardless of who you ask, whenever a list of reasons for project failure is compiled, scope change is sure to be on the list.  


Common causes, such as incomplete and poorly defined requirements, lack of scope verification, and scope creep are all symptoms of poor scope management and scope change control. 

Scope Change vs. Scope Creep

Before you learn how to manage scope change, it’s important to differentiate scope change from scope creep. While working in project management, you’ve undoubtedly heard both terms. And while both are different, scope creep, which can be detrimental to your project and firm is a result of poorly managed scope change.  

scope change vs scope creep

Scope change is an official decision made by the project manager and the client to change a feature, to expand or reduce its functionality. This generally involves adjusting the cost, budget, other features, or the timeline. 

Scope creep, on the other hand, refers to the phenomenon where the project scope grows beyond what was originally defined in the statement of work. Scope creep almost always lacks proper planning, costing and approval processes. 

When designing a new office building, a client may ask you to add a small feature to the entryway that wasn't already planned and budgeted for. This is an example of scope creep, a seemingly small change that wasn’t defined well in the scope document. And while scope creep might not mean big changes, it impacts your bottom line. 

An example of scope change would be when your client decides to redo the entire entryway of the office building, but then also decides to obtain an estimate on redoing the bathrooms as well. 

Managing Scope Change

No matter how well you define a project at the start, occurrences are bound to crop up that will require scope changes. While scope change is inevitable and natural, it still entails a change to your original plan. And mismanaging these changes could create havoc for your projects. 

7 Steps for Scope Change Control

You need a solid change process that will help you streamline requests, delegate work to the appropriate people, and maintain oversight of your project scope. It’s important to define this process before you get a request for scope change. 

1. Focus on the Foundation

Before you can address scope change control, you must implement a process to define scope. Trying to introduce any type of controlled change in an organization without any structure can present challenges. 

Changing a few aspects of a project is not inherently difficult. But changing organizational behavior to accept these changes is another matter altogether. The more change you attempt to introduce to your firm, the harder it will be to adapt, accept and embrace that change. 

Limit the scope of change and define a basic process so that, when scope change does happen, you know how to manage the change and you aren’t redefining internal structures and causing costly and timely issues. 

2. Create a Structured Approach

In order to capture the business objectives associated with project requests, you need a structured approach for defining, evaluating, and approving the preliminary scope of work. 

scope change project management structured approach (1)

Approving the scope of work should involve more than shaking hands or a verbal okay. When it comes to project management, approvals imply documentation. When you document a change or approval, you have evidence of an agreement and a foundation to build on. 

While you may feel like documenting every change is excessive and limiting, creating a record doesn’t mean you are locked in for the rest of the project. Rather, the record sets boundaries and provides a foundation for effective planning.

3. Understand Project Completion

Unlike reaching a destination in your car, reaching the end of a project can be a little less obvious. A project is complete when you have delivered on the business objectives. But how does your firm define final client acceptance? 

Define what this acceptance is before you start your project.  

Create a formal recognition that the initial objectives defined in your project scope, and all objectives agreed upon in formally approved changes, are met. 

Establishing a plain definition will help you avoid any differing opinions on what was wanted versus what was documented. 

4. Define the Process

Aggressively managing expectations is your best opportunity to influence your clients’ perception of value. 

Define, document, and communicate a structured approach for requesting, evaluating, and approving change requests. Determining decision points in advance can help you avoid any confusion when change happens. 

Consider defining pivotal project moments, such as: 

  • What the tripwires are for approving changes 

  • What the associated levels of authority are for approval 

  • What events must be escalated 

  • What needs to be reviewed before approval 

But keep in mind that too much bureaucracy or unnecessary paperwork may incentivize others to avoid your process. 

5. Create a Work Breakdown Structure

When defining all the work required to complete a project, work backward from the desired end state and expected benefits. 

Document and validate the full scope of work as you determine what work is required to reach the end goals. Try to communicate upfront that change is not free and additional requests must be formally requested, documented, agreed upon, and approved before you include them in your project scope of work. 

6. Continuously Manage Change

After you lay the foundation, all you have left to do is manage according to your policies and plan. You also need to manage any change requests that come your way. 

Also, know when to say “no”. There will be unreasonable requests for scope changes that you shouldn’t green light. Not all scope changes are created equal and part of managing your scope is saying no to unreasonable changes. 

7. Consider the Implications and Get Changes Approved 

After you evaluate and approve the change request, you want to make sure it is also approved by the necessary executive stakeholders. These are often outlined in your scope change approval process. While you can determine the best process for getting these approvals met, often you’ll need to send the request, detail the scope change, list reasons for your approval, and provide any other details you see fit for the management team.  

8. Communicate to the Team 

Your team will feel frustrated if they’re told to make a change and then not given a clear reason as to why. Especially after they’ve invested a lot of time into the project. Few things are more frustrating than being told to change the way you're working without a reason to back it up.  

Be sure to involve and inform your team of scope changes right away. When you document the requests, you can clearly let your team know why the change is necessary and get them on board with the change.  

Unplanned changes are common. They can be large and sudden or gradual and subtle. Either way, they all can add up to important changes to your project overtime. By following these steps and having clear communication with everyone involved, you can assure that unexpected changes don’t derail the project.  

9. Use Project Management Software

Your project management software can be a valuable tool for managing scope changes. Use a tool that gives visibility to your team for the entire project and assets.  

PM Software for Scope Change Prevention (1)

Your project management tool can help reinforce your process for handling requests and scope changes by: 

  • Seamlessly managing time, to-do lists, and costs from a single dashboard. (No more errors and mistakes made due to working on multiple software platforms and manual processes).  

  • Avoid the hassle and clutter of physical reports. Track your team's project performance and progress through built-in digital reporting. This means you automatically receive reporting updates so you never miss any issues that can affect the scope of your project.  

  • Use real-time insights to keep projects on-time and on-budget, with zero surprises. This ensures you’re always in the know and scope creep can’t sneak up on you.  

  • Understand costs and schedule for each phase of a project with phased billing. Nothing is worse than thinking you’re on track of your budget, only to find out it now costs so much more than initially planned.

  • To prevent this, project management software allows you to track progress and budget — both from a time and cost perspective — to instantly monitor a project’s pulse and course correct before minor issues become major ones. 

If you aren’t already using project management software to prevent scope changes, we welcome you to try a free demo of BQE CORE to see why our customers are seeing profitable projects that stay on schedule and budget every time.  

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

If you don’t have a process in place to manage scope change, your projects will suffer in multiple ways. 

Consider the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Why is it that the tower leans to the southeast? Because the foundation is weak. Loose rock and soil allowed the foundation to shift direction. 

You must build your house on a strong foundation to prevent unplanned changes.  

This applies to both sudden and obvious changes as well as slow and undetectable changes. And while it’s important to build a foundation, the emphasis here is on a strong foundation, not a complex one. 

Want more tips to prevent scope creep, increase efficiency and improve your bottom line?  

Click to download a free eBook on 10 Fatal Project Management Mistakes and How to Prevent Them. 

You can also view our on-demand webinar Scope Creep: Identifying and Reducing this Huge Project Management Pitfall by Anthony Fasano, PE, President & CEO, Engineering Management Institute and author of Engineer Your Own Success.    

To learn more about BQE CORE, or to sign up for your free trial click here.

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