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How to avoid scope creep in freelance projects (7 tactics)

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Avoid scope creep with bulletproof freelance contracts using Bonsai.
Avoid scope creep with bulletproof freelance contracts using Bonsai.
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Updated on:
December 12, 2022
December 12, 2022
Avoid scope creep with bulletproof freelance contracts using Bonsai.
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Scope creep – the horrifyingly common tendency for projects to expand past their initial bounds. How to avoid scope creep is the question brewing at the back of every freelancer’s mind while preparing a proposal template, or when first submitting a scope of work template and discussing project details with a new client or agency.

But get this:

Whether you like it or not, the truth is, scope creep happens naturally, no matter how well you manage your freelance projects.

The trick is understanding what scope creep really is, together with the strategies and solutions for working around this tendency in any professional situation. This not only increases your chances of delivering your professional project in the same budget and time frame you agreed on but will help you feel more confident in your career.

Sound awesome?

In this article, we’ll outline why scope creep happens in the first place and how you can tackle the common issue, professionally and smoothly like the prepared and confident freelancer you are.


What is scope creep?

First off, what is scope creep?

As we briefly mentioned, scope creep refers to changes in a project’s professional scope, at any point after the project commences.

The changes in scope could refer to:

  • Additions in the project’s requirements
  • A sudden change in client needs
  • Additional features to a product

While this sounds super annoying as a freelancer, especially when the client is requesting the same payout, scope creep isn’t all that bad.


Change is inevitable. However, like anything else, it’s all a matter of how you approach the situation that makes the difference.

Looking for hacks to get you started on properly preparing for your clients? Sign up for a free trial of Bonsai to get the inside scoop - tons of features to protect you against scope creep, such as bullet-proof freelance contract templates, time-tracking per task, and more.


What are the causes of scope creep?

The majority of scope creep situations arise from clients who don’t know how to properly define their requirements. However, depending on the project, there can be a number of ways scope creep ‘creeps’ up.

Here are some primary causes of scope creep:

1. Poor requirements analysis

When your client doesn’t know the full scope to start with and/or doesn’t spend enough time gathering appropriate documents and research for you.

2. Not including users early enough

Assuming you know what your users need or want. Not including users in the analysis and building stages can lead to issues and/or scope creep.

3. Underestimating the project’s complexity

If your client is new to the industry, they may guess through projects as they don’t know what to expect and plan for.

4. Gold plating

This is a common term used for exceeding a project’s scope due to the belief that these changes will increase the value.

Understanding the causes of scope creep is your first step towards mastering how to safely avoid scope creep in the first place.

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7 tactics for mastering how you avoid scope creep

Now that you understand the full scope of scope creep, it’s time for preparation.

Here’s the thing:

Every project is different because every freelance client is different (in one way or another).

While some of these tactics may work well for one client, they could be totally useless for the next. The key here is to understand all the ways on how to avoid scope creep so that you’re fully prepared for any situation this freelancing ride throws your way.

Not only that, but these tactics are great tools to have for building confidence and professionalism as well.

Bonuses all around.

1. Keep note of the requirements

First thing’s fist: be organized.

Being organized by documenting each clients’ requirements not only makes you feel great, but it is the single most important step to avoiding scope creep.

Talk to everyone involved and figure out exactly what they want from the project, then write it all down in an organized document or online tool. This process, for some professional services, is known as creating an engagement letter. Also, manage potential conflicts and prioritize requirements (as much as possible).

After your document is completed, add your client and everyone else involved in the project to your online document for easy, group access.

You can also add this document to a larger project plan if you have one in motion, or consider the help of a project management tool for freelancers to keep everything nicely sorted.

2. Change control processes: set-up

While a requirements document is a great starting point, chances are, someone will want to tweak something at some point. This reality requires a change control process.

Thankfully, this process is straightforward.

So, let’s say your client or a stakeholder suggests a change. If the change is approved, then incorporate it into your group-shared project plan.

If the project management software you’re using supports a change management function, then simply use that. The trick here is figuring out who is going to review and approve any changes.

Empower a finite amount of people to request scope changes and an even smaller number to grant these wishes. Describe and document the process for receiving additional freelance invoice payments for any scope changes made after a certain period of time.

If they agree, follow our client billing guide to seal the deal.

3. Make a coherent project schedule

After your document requirements are added to your project plan, you can then create a project schedule.

By using your requirements document, create a task list that shows:

  • What your project will deliver.
  • How the requirements will be achieved.
  • When approximately they should be completed by. You can use Bonsai's time tracker to help you make these estimates.

This list should be written in the form of activities and tasks.

Since we now know that changes are inevitable, put some time aside for contingency. This allows for changes to be accepted in a constructive way since it’s planned and discussed up front.

There are tons of different project management tools you can use to jumpstart this scheduling process.

4. Involve the project team

Encourage all users and partners to be a part of the requirements and building phase. Include their ideas and suggestions into the product.

While this happens, it’s also smart to document how everyone interacts with the initial plan.

Before the execution phase commences, make sure everyone agrees on the requirements and overall design or plan.

It’s also important to remind users or partners of the change rules: that change suggestions don’t just happen by someone liking the idea. The change must be approved by the group or designated individual(s).


5. Prepare for gold plating

As we mentioned in an earlier section, gold plating is a real and daunting cause of scope creep.

This is a tendency created by the client or agency to over-delivery the scope and create additional features, thinking it will add value to the project.

While they usually have the project’s best interest at heart, their tunnel-vision usually doesn’t account for the freelancer’s time or the project’s structure.

Prepare for gold plating by including information in the project plan about additional payment for certain types of add-on features.

6. Learn when to say “no”

When you’re learning how to avoid scope creep, sometimes all it takes is the magic word.

You have to come to the realization that there will be unreasonable requests for scope changes.

While you’re likely a rockstar freelancer, you’re only human.

Understand that not all scope changes are made equal. Any scope changes to vital path elements (areas of the project that hold up other work if not completed on time) should be allowed only sparingly…

And evaluated carefully.

7. Alternatives to saying no

If you’re not comfortable saying no… or if you’ve already said no a few times, there’s a few Plan Bs you can refer to:

  • Communicate with your client that if something is added into the scope, something must come out (from their pockets).
  • Price the scope creep. How much will the changes or additional features cost? Telling them the numbers upfront may discourage any more requests from arising.
  • You can also charge late fees to your client. This can be intimidating, but there are tons of resources to guide you, making the process as smooth as can be.

Bonuses to being creeped-on

While this may sound intimidating, once you nail down your own process and really understand what scope creep is and how you can avoid it, it will just become a part of your freelancing regime.

And guess what?

Scope creep can actually be a positive thing when working with external clients.

If you stay organized and use a professionally written freelance contract that includes prices of additional features, you could create new revenue for yourself. Worrying about how to avoid scope creep becomes a thing of the past.

As soon as the external client requests a listed feature, all you need to do is calculate the hours of additional work, have the client sign-off, and wham.

Freelance scope creep... reversed.

To make sure you’re super organized for this type of outcome, sign up for your free trial of Bonsai’s freelancing solutions today.

Avoid scope creep with bulletproof freelance contracts using Bonsai.
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