Scope creep is one of the most common reasons a project will get off track and either take longer than expected to complete or result in a lower-than-expected average hourly rate for your work. How do you keep a project within scope and on schedule?

Take your time to thoroughly plan the project, giving yourself more time than you think you need to complete all requested tasks.

It’s easy to get excited about getting a project up and running and digging into the requested work at hand - especially when you’re eager to get that first payment from the client! But spending an adequate amount of time planning the project early on is key to avoiding some of the most common reasons a project experiences scope creep.

Here’s some honest truth: You may think you know how long a project will take to complete, but you’re likely underestimating. Unexpected issues are bound to come up during the project. You might run into an issue while working through the project’s tasks, or maybe your schedule gets sidetracked due to other client work or an issue unrelated to your work. Always add in some buffer to your time estimates, whether you’re sharing estimated time with the client or not.

I like to assume every task is going to take at least 1.5x as long as originally intended. If it ends up taking less time, great! I get to make the client happy by delivering work earlier than expected. But if you do run into those issues, you know you’ve left yourself some wiggle room for these exact scenarios.

Create a well-defined scoping document outlining what is in scope and, more importantly, what is NOT in scope.

Before even starting any work on a freelance project, you and the client must come to an agreement on the work that will actually be completed. Create a document that lists the work that will be completed as a part of the project, and then a list of items that are not included in the scope of work. Be as specific as possible; leave no room for interpretation.

For example, a basic website project may include the following in-scope and out-of-scope items:

Tasks in scope:

  • Website design for homepage, About Us, FAQs, Contact Us, with two rounds of revisions for both desktop and mobile devices
  • Fully responsive website buildout for the aforementioned pages
  • Launch of website to new web host
  • Basic reusable informational page template
  • 1-hour recorded training session with written documentation on how to maintain your website
  • Bug fixes for 14 days post-launch
  • Monthly post-launch support for up to 10 hours per month; hours not used in a given month do not roll over to the next month. Support provided during working hours (Monday-Friday, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM ET)

 Tasks out of scope:

  • Custom page design for custom pages not listed in scope of work
  • Ongoing annual cost of domain name registration
  • Ongoing monthly cost of web hosting
  • After-hours support
  • Bug fixes beyond 14 days post-launch (will be billed as part of monthly post-launch support)

Treat this as a jumping-off point. There are plenty more items you can add to this list. Make sure you get the client to sign off on this document, and ask them if they have any questions about items either included or not included.

Explain early on and in writing how to handle out-of-scope requests.

Questions will inevitably come up during your project where the client will ask for a particular feature that is not outlined in the document. Whether you can take on additional work requests is dependent upon the project itself, your capabilities, and the project’s deadline, so it’s up to you whether or not you want to agree to this. The most important piece here is don’t agree to additional work without getting an additional payment.

When a client asks for additional work to be done, send them a variation of this message:

I’d be happy to provide an estimate for this additional task, as it’s not currently included in the approved scope of work (and feel free to link to your document here!). Please note that we have a fixed launch date of XXX, and new tasks will [push out the launch date/be completed after we launch with the initial agreed upon scope of work].

Getting pushback from the client at this point can be expected, so don’t fret if they say they didn’t expect to pay additional money, or they still need this by the initially agreed-upon launch date! Politely explain why the launch date is fixed (or that you can’t do more work in less time), or point back to the agreed-upon scope of work document that the client signed off on.

Learning to keep your freelance projects in scope takes practice, but as you can see, most of the work starts before you even begin working on the project. Don’t rush the planning process, have everything in writing and signed off by the client, and push back on new requests that aren’t a part of the original scope of work so you aren’t doing additional work for free.

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