How to Manage Expanding the Scope of Work

Words: Vanessa Salvia

Words: Vanessa Salvia
Photo: AmnajKhetsamtip

Scope creep. That's what project managers call changes in the work required to complete a project. In many projects, scope creep means the requirements increased — either from an increase in deliverables, an increase in features, an increase in materials used, or a change in customer needs in one way or another. Scope creep can happen in just about any kind of project, and it can certainly happen in construction and have many causes. 

When the scope of work for a construction project expands, it is often the result of the key stakeholders not thinking things all the way through before a project kicks off. Whatever caused it, the result is typically delayed and going over budget. But when the scope of needs changes, it's not always a bad thing. After all, a customer's needs may change along the way through no fault of their own. 

The pandemic we're living through is a perfect example of how things can come up out of the blue and change how people use a building. But scope creep is not always a bad thing. If a customer's needs change and you can deliver what they need, you become the hero. The real key here is how to manage expanding the scope of work to proceed successfully. 

Setting the Initial Scope

One way to avoid scope creep is to be diligent about setting the initial scope and be as thorough as possible. The initial scope must include what needs to be done and why. At this stage, the project manager may identify that the initial scope may not be enough. It also may be possible to identify some points that may change down the road. Either way, the initial scope should be as thorough as possible and outline the objectives and how that will be carried out, and by who.

A strong initial scope statement should set up the expected outcome, the limits, and constraints, what things will cost, and what team will be doing what. That way, all stakeholders have a clear understanding of the project. Then, the project manager must get a sign-off on that. If there's no sign-off, then managing the scope when it expands will be harder because there won't be an agreement on what the baseline expectations of the project were in the first place.

Define "Scope Exclusions"

It may seem counterintuitive to set up "scope exclusions," but it makes sense to say what you will do as well as what you will not do. That way, new deliverables aren't added to the project scope mid-stream. In addition, many people may assume that certain things are included in a project that might not be. Making a detailed list of what is not included closes the door for later becoming a point of contention. 

For instance, if a stakeholder asks why materials testing wasn't done, it could set up a situation where work may have to be redone (introducing delays and budget pressure) for testing to occur. However, if that scenario were in the scope exclusions document, there would be no confusion over whether testing was to be done or not. Be sure that the stakeholders know that if excluded items are requested, they won't be added to the list of deliverables without additional compensation.

Managing Scope Creep

While an owner on a construction project may change their mind, some important ways to keep these last-minute changes at bay, and number one is communication and planning.

Plan ahead

If you're building an office building, don't just consider the architect's plans and the owners' visions. Talk with the people working in the building or similar buildings. Walk the halls of a similar project with the stakeholders. Look at the angle of the light and where it falls on where the desks are situated. 

Being onsite in a similar building can reveal many things that you might not think about in a 3D model of a building. If there is a window wall planned with no window treatments like blinds, the workers may have many uncomfortable hours of glare on their computer screens. It is important to consider as many details as possible at the onset of a project before any construction workers even pick up a single tool.

Understand what the customer wants and needs. 

If a stakeholder changes their mind about something, compromises may have to be made in another area to stay on time and budget. Ensure they are informed in as much detail as possible what the changes will mean — how much those changes cost, how that will affect the timeline, and how it will affect the workflow on other parts of the job. Better yet, though, work closely with the stakeholders to think things through before anyone reaches the jobsite. A skilled project manager will anticipate areas where the original plan might not be adequate and make suggestions. 

If you don't have a detailed plan, it will be difficult to talk to the customer about the impact of changes. So that goes back to rule number one of planning. 

Require an addendum for changes.

Requiring an addendum to the contract for each change order. This isn't to say that you want to make it so difficult that the customer doesn't want to make changes, but it IS somewhat about creating a deterrent. It's also about documenting everything extensively so that all costs are accounted for, and it also assures that you will be paid for any work outside of what was stated at the outset.  

Learn when to say no.

Managing scope creep doesn't mean always saying yes. There may be times when the project manager will need to say that something is simply not reasonable or will cost too much, or take too much more time to make it feasible. The better you understand the job, the more you can communicate about the effect of changes. You can build flexibility into a project timeline or budget, but there are likely cases where a major change would have too great of an effect on the entire project.


When scope creeps happen, and you can manage it effectively, that's likely to result in happy customers, and it may lead to other work down the road. But you can't necessarily always say no. You don't always want to say yes, either. When you do say yes to a customer's request to expand the scope of work on a construction project, do so with a clear plan in mind. Map out the original plan to effectively communicate with the client what impact their changes will have. Have them sign off on the original plan and use an addendum to the contract for any change requests.  

Each time you encounter a scope creep situation. Sometimes, a client changes their mind, or the needs of the building change midstream. When it is clear your team is going above and beyond for a customer, and you're organized enough to absorb the changes and still stick to a reasonable plan, your project will be a success. You'll be better equipped to reduce the negative impact of scope creep in the future.

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