creeping toward insantiy


In the comments, Colleen asked that I address “mission creep” and the joys that emit there forth.  I’ve heard it called “mission creep,” “scope creep”* and “the single easiest way to lose your mind.”  Whatever business speak phrase you prefer, it is the phenomenon of thinking you know exactly what a project will be and how much time it will take, only to watch it grow seemingly exponentially and in direct proportion to the degree to which you try and please your client.

It is horrible.

There are many reasons why projects become larger than they were ever intended to be, but almost all of those reasons have their roots in communication.  It seems like a horribly simple and trite answer (“But we talked about it for three hours!  My ear was bleeding when the conference call ended!”), but chances are at some point both you and your client thought you were speaking the exact same language and you weren’t.

Below are some of the top tips I give clients who are watching their projects spin out of hand (and my clients are usually the people buying the services, so the frustrations exist on both sides; that’s important to remember).  These tips are not intended to be complete, so, ask questions and give me examples.  Mission creep is a huge subject and an entire blog could be dedicated to it.

1. Check, Double Check and then Check Again

A lot of times we assume we’re speaking the same language as the person sitting across from us and don’t realize we were using fundamentally different definitions for basic words until it is too late.  Do not assume that your client understands your business speak and do not try to impress them by assuming you know what they’re talking about when they use their business speak.  Ask questions.  Ask as many questions as you need to to feel comfortable that you know what they’re talking about.  Encourage your client to ask questions and invite them to do so often.  Define words for people.  Don’t worry; they’ll appreciate it.

2.  Educate Your Client

Remember that rate sheet I was talking about?  It’s important because it is a simple way to educate your client about what to expect from the relationship and how to ask you questions.  When someone knows that adding details to a project will cost them an extra $200, they’re less likely to do it on a whim.  So educate your client about your services, not only how much they cost, but how much time they take, how additions and subtractions impact time and cost and how they impact it depending on when they are done.

3.  Use Your Words

You would be amazed, amazed!, how often I review Statements of Work that are one pagers and say things like “Leverage best practices to facilitate the integration of the deliverables into realized functionalities.”


Aside from the fact that this offends the English language and anyone who has ever spoken it, it does not communicate a darn thing.  If something goes sideways, how the heck are you supposed to come back to a sentence like that and determine what you originally intended the project to be?

Write a Statement of Work so that a 3rd party, not knowing a thing about your relationship with the client or the project, can determine what you originally intended the project to incorporate.  If your spouse or friend reads the document, asks a question and you reply, “Oh, they know what I mean; it’s an industry term,” rewrite it.  Yeah, no; rewrite it.

4.  Write it Out

And oh, please for the love of all that is good, write out what the project is supposed to be in a single document.  Do not rely on piecing emails together; do not rely on phone calls or hand shakes; do not assume that you both “know” what it is.  Write out exactly what the project is before you start your work and for an extra gold star identify what is outside the scope of the project.  A quick paragraph entitled “Out of Scope” with a bulleted list of what your client isn’t paying you for can save you from all sorts of headaches and uncomfortable conversations.

5.  Be Direct

If a project is spinning out of control, call the client and address it.  Be honest.  Tell them it looks like the project is growing out of control and that you don’t think it was what either of you intended.  Say you want to make sure they are happy with the project and the project’s costs and you wanted to check in before things got out of hand.  Clients almost always prefer to hear, “I want to make sure we’re on the right track,” instead of “We should have talked about this earlier.”  And if they don’t, you don’t need that client.  They aren’t worth it.

Doing all of these things, perfectly, every time, still won’t protect you from Mission Creep, but they will help.  I’m interested in the problems where these things have been done and there are still frustrations.  If you’ve got an example you’ll let me use here, email me.

For those of you playing along with us at home, we’ll be using our homework on Friday.  Haven’t started?  Get on it!

*Today I actually heard someone say they “crept the scope” of a project.  My head about flew off.

Categories: Dealing with People

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