How to Avoid Scope Creep When Building a Website

What happens when you've signed an agreement with a web design agency, only for it to become clear that the original brief needs quite a bit of adjusting? Here's how to avoid the common scope creep when building a website.

by Drew Barton

Web Development

Reading Time | 9 min

Imagine that after careful research and negotiations, you’ve finally signed an agreement with a web design agency to build your website. Now that the ink is dry and work is underway, it now becomes a project in progress. But what happens if you sign the agreement, then decide you need to add something to the proposed website that wasn’t originally discussed? What if you decide you want to add a new ecommerce element or a blog?

Making changes midstream is known as scope creep.

If you initiate scope creep, you’re now asking for things that weren’t originally agreed upon, which adds up to more work and time spent for the digital agency. If the agency initiates scope creep, they are adding steps to the process that they didn’t tell you about before. In the former case, it’s essentially unfair to the agency; in the latter, it’s careless on their part. Regardless of who initiates it, the bottom line is that it can add up to additional time and cost, causing friction in the process.

In this piece, I’ll explain why scope creep happens, how change orders work, and offer up some tips for preventing the ballooning costs associated with scope creep.

Change Orders 101

When scope creep occurs, it means that the initial scope of work no longer fits the new requirements, and a change order must be made. This gets especially dicey when the client requests additional work and doesn’t recognize it as a change to the initial scope, which can, in turn, lead to disputes over missed deadlines and rising costs.

I’ve seen change orders destroy the working relationship between the client and the digital agency fairly quickly, especially if the project had a vague scope of work that failed to address questions such as the following:

  • How many pages will the website have?
  • How many designs will it have?
  • How many revisions are included?
  • How many weeks will the project take?
  • What happens if you are unhappy with the deliverables?
  • What happens if you want to add something to the project? Is it included in this current development phase, or does it elicit a change order for addition as a second phase?
  • How many forms does the website have?

There are a lot of different components that need to be thought out, and making decisions mid-project is not the best way to do things. As the buyer of the website, you never want to be caught in a situation where you’re saying, “Oh, I thought that was included.”

How Does Scope Creep Happen?

From the aesthetic to the functional, scope creep and change orders happen for all kinds of reasons.

1. People change their minds or remember something they forgot

This is usually the most common catalyst for a change order. For example, maybe a client initially wanted a simple online product catalog, but then decided after the initial scope that they would like to give customers the option to make purchases directly on the site. That’s just one example, but really, change orders can involve just about anything — big or small:

  • “Whoops, we forgot to include our social media icons!”
  • “Now that I think about it, it would be really good to have a quote request form.”
  • “Actually, this color scheme is not working for us.”
  • “Oh, is it too late to include an email newsletter sign-up?”
  • “We’re rolling out a brand-new product and need the website to reflect that.”

Even with the most detailed contract, change orders like this can still pop up and create scope creep.

2. Changes in staffing or project point persons

Another common cause of change orders and scope creep is staff change. Perhaps you assigned your project manager Cindy to work with the digital agency. Then Cindy left your company or got pulled onto another project, and now Dave is going to replace her. The problem here is that Cindy already made a lot of decisions, and Dave has a whole different vision regarding how this project is going to be completed. Unless you and Dave have an agreement that Cindy’s decisions must stand, Dave is likely to request some type of change that will end up increasing the scope of work, and by extension, the project cost.

3. Neglecting to consult with stakeholders on key decisions

Change orders and scope creep also typically occur when a decision-maker is AWOL during a critical decision, then swoops in later and asks to make a change. If a team or committee is in charge of making the decision, and not everyone signs off on it, this is basically scope creep waiting to happen.

Catching Scope Creep

A good agency will actually call you out on scope creep when it happens. A bad one won’t. If you’re sending out-of-scope changes to your digital agency, and they don’t point out that those changes aren’t included in the terms of the agreement, that’s actually a sign of an unhealthy company. When the agency isn’t strong enough to tell you no, that means they don’t have healthy boundaries; and if they’re doing this with you, they’re probably doing that with other clients as well.

A healthy company will address changes like these upfront by saying, “This was not in the terms of our agreement; we’re happy to do it, but it will cost more money.” This demonstrates that the company is willing to protect both your agreement and their product. Because changes usually cost the agency money. So, if they aren’t passing those costs to you, they’re absorbing them, and they can’t do that for very long and remain solvent. The agency might be good enough to give you a freebie now and then, but if you’re making a lot of changes and they aren’t charging you for them, don’t expect that agency to be around for long. And if the agency folds, where does that leave your website?

Your First Defense Against Scope Creep is a Meticulous Agreement

It’s critical to acknowledge that, in our imperfect world, people are going to change their minds once in a while. Most agencies aren’t going to give you grief because you want a change, especially if you’re willing to absorb the extra cost and effort. Most of the time, the friction occurs when the client doesn’t recognize a request as a change, and therefore doesn’t want to pay the extra cost. If something isn’t clearly spelled out in the scope of work, a “he said, she said” situation can quickly develop. If only a verbal agreement — and no documentation — exists to back up an expectation, it doesn’t take long for things to get ugly.

So why are disagreements so common, if all you need to do to avoid them is spell everything out in the SOW or SLA? Most often the breakdown occurs when the salesperson hands off the project to the production team.

Let’s say that you’re a client in a sales meeting with Bob, the salesperson at XYZ Web Company. Bob writes up the quote, and everyone signs it and shakes hands. However, not all the information discussed in this meeting gets passed on to the production team.

The handoff is an important moment. If any of the things you and Bob agreed to verbally are overlooked or forgotten, they won’t be written down in the SOW, and, as a result, you risk a breakdown occurring later.

This is why it’s so critical that you review the written agreement before you sign it, to make sure that everything you agreed to verbally with the sales consultant is included in your SOW. Mistakes may be unintentional — we’re only human, after all — but this is where you as the client must be vigilant.

By the same token, there is a chance it might actually be you, not Bob the sales guy, who forgot to mention something you wanted to include. After all, there are many details involved in the development and design of a website.

As a client, you can reduce the risk of change orders and scope creep by just slowing down when you’re planning, discussing, and signing all the paperwork associated with your project. People often get so excited to start on the project that they overlook key details that need to be covered. Just take some extra time to come up with a list of every element you want to include in your website, and double-check to make sure everything you addressed is spelled out in the SOW before you sign. Do not assume anything during this process. Assumptions are another area where breakdowns can occur.

Scope Creep Isn’t Completely Preventable

While scope creep can be frustrating and expensive, the truth is that it’s virtually impossible to entirely avoid it. During a three- or six-month website-development project, minds are going to change. It’s very rare to see a project launch with the same direction and goals it had on Day One. As time goes on, opinions and preferences inevitably evolve, especially when you’re working with a team, or when new team members join the project.

Even with the most meticulous planning and detailed scope of work, there are some things you can’t anticipate at the beginning of a project. To complicate matters, the larger the project is, the greater the likelihood that you will want to make some changes.

Think about the last time you went into a big-box store like Costco and said to yourself, “I’m going to buy milk and eggs.” You’ve budgeted three dollars for each item, so your scope going into that store is six dollars for two items. Now, perhaps you have the self-possession to walk into that store filled with unexpected deals and buy just those two things. But if you’re anything like me, chances are you’re going to walk out with more than just milk and eggs. Something is going to catch your eye or be on sale, or maybe you’re going to see something else you remember you needed. And the longer you spend in the store, the more likely it is.

The same concept applies to website design and development. Except in this case, you’re basically spending three to six months in the store shopping. If you’re having regular meetings with your own team members and your contact at the agency, you’ll likely hear a lot of shiny new ideas being tossed around — ideas you hadn’t thought of when you first decided to have a website designed.

The point is that even with the best planning and discipline, you can’t anticipate everything. You want to keep your costs from creeping up unnecessarily, but you also want to allow for some flexibility, so if you want to make a change, it doesn’t cause a crisis. To avoid getting caught off guard when this happens, allow space in your budget for contingencies.

Have more questions?

Contact us today to learn more about how to choose a digital agency.

Drew Barton | President and Founder

Drew Barton is the President and Founder of SiteCare, LLC. For over two decades, Drew has helped thousands of businesses grow online. He is the author of the Buyer’s Guide to Websites, an Eagle Scout, and a Board Member of the Atlanta chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization.

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