3 ways to avoid scope creep in freelance projects

While it's usually not done maliciously, it's bound to come up in your business as a freelancer. Scope creep! Learn to spot it and how to stop it before you find yourself working for free.
3 ways to avoid scope creep in freelance projects

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Scope creep. As freelancers, we’ve all been there. In fact, here’s an experience I had early on in my freelance writing career:

I was hired to create the content and design for a brochure. We discussed the basic design and content elements and began our contract.

After delivering the first, two-sided version, my client decided that it didn’t quite fit what she was hoping for. Let’s expand some of the content sections, she said. We can just move them to a new page.

If you’ve ever dealt with scope creep, you can probably understand the dread I was feeling right about then. I knew this “small change” was going to create a lot more work, but I felt trapped. After all, I hadn’t specified the number of pages (though I’ve never seen a multi-page brochure before) and she didn’t add any content, we were just expanding the agreed-upon sections. Setting clear terms was my responsibility, right? I couldn’t just change the project now.

So I agreed to the changes and ended up spending more than 20 hours on the job in total. The client was happy, but I felt discouraged, frustrated, and angry with myself for mishandling the situation.

Sound familiar? Scope creep is an unfortunately common occurrence for many freelancers, one that many aren’t prepared to handle. With the right freelance project management tools, however, you don’t have to lose time and money in the situations.

In this blog, you’ll learn how to recognize scope creep, understand the motives behind it, and avoid it in your projects.

Let’s get to it.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep involves a client asking for more work or changing the agreed-upon details of your project. This can happen any time after your contract begins. A client might ask for a small change or change the direction of the project completely. While scope creep can be obvious (like my experience), it may also be as subtle as asking for a small edit that falls outside of the original scope of work. 

What causes scope creep?

Now, it’s important to note that your client is probably not trying to con free work from you. They may have underestimated the work, prepared an incomplete brief, or be dealing with changing demands from their own team.

Clients who are new to working with freelancers are especially prone to unintentional mission creep. They probably ask for similar changes from their own employees every day and thus are unaware of the bigger ways it can affect freelancers.

Just because it’s not malicious, however, doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. As freelancer Kaleigh Moore says, “You’re a business owner just like they are — and your time is important and valuable, too.”

How can I stop scope creep?

Every project is different, so your experiences with scope creep will likely all be unique as well. The key? Knowing how to address and adapt to each instance with success. Successful freelance project management starts with preparation, so use these strategies to avoid drowning in scope creep.

1. Create clear contract agreements

The easiest and best way to keep projects from getting out of hand is to clearly state the work involved with the job. Tell clients upfront what your bid includes, such as the word count, functions, file types, amount of research, fees, and more. With a freelance business management tool like Moxie's guided contract builder and proposal generator, you can easily create binding agreements that keep everyone on the same page.

You should also limit your rounds of revisions. When a client knows they only have two rounds of included edits, you’ll get much more detailed and comprehensive feedback.

Most importantly, get the details of each project in writing. Even if you discuss the work over the phone, send an email or follow up in your business management software so you have something to refer to. This ensures both parties can fully understand and meet the project expectations.

2. Seize the opportunity

Scope creep is frustrating (especially when you don’t know how to respond), but it can actually be a really good thing for your freelance business.

When a client asks for work that doesn’t fit your initial agreement, it becomes an opportunity for you to make more money. Alvalyn Lundgren, founder of Freelance Road Trip, offers this response to additional project changes:

“I communicate the details of the additions and the additions’ fees and time in a written change order. I do nothing until the change order is approved. In fact, I stop all work on the project until the change order is approved. This gives me breathing room, and expedites the client’s response. I inform the client that I will not be able to move forward with any aspect of the project until the change order is signed.

Sometimes, the client will re-think the additional work, because he truly doesn’t have the budget for it. But generally, clients will find the money.”

As you negotiate, remain reasonable and remember that this is a business deal, not something personal. Keep discussions focused on your work and pay. If you laid out clear terms in your contract, refer clients to the agreement. Approaching the situation as a professional can help you reach a compromise that works for everyone.

3. Set and maintain your boundaries

For some freelancers, avoiding conflict is worth more than the extra time it takes to make a few edits. Others would rather say no and back out of the project completely.

Your response may change depending on the work and changes, but it helps to be prepared before you’re forced to make a decision. Recognize the signs of scope creep early so you can minimize the potential conflict. Set and understand your limits now to simplify your response to scope creep in the future.

As a free agent, you have no obligation to do more than you agreed to do initially. There’s no wrong answer here, as long as you’re happy with the direction the project takes.

Want to learn more about running your freelance business? Take control with Moxie, the freelancer business management software.

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Our team of career freelancers writes about best invoice practices, what makes a great client, and repeats the mantra, "never work without a contract." We're opinionated about the future of work and will always be on the side of freelancers.
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