How to Maintain Control Over Freelance Project Scope

You aren’t like the others. You take pride in delivering top quality. It’s important to you as a freelancer to do your best work – to do the best work. You review, revise, incorporate oh so many contradictory pieces of feedback, and when you are done, you have a perfect deliverable. But along they way, you’ve been reduced to a dishtowel – the number of hours you have now invested in this project far exceeds the amount of money that your client has invested in compensating you for it.

Like it or not, you have allowed the project to get the better of you. You’ve become a casualty of “scope creep,” one of the most dangerous pitfalls of the freelancing life.

Scope creep is what happens when the actual scope of a project from start to finish significantly exceeds the expectations for the project as they were articulated before work starts. Scope creep can happen, as in the example above, as the result of a service provider’s commitment to excellence. It can happen because of an indecisive client. It can happen when contradictory messages come from different parties within the client’s company. And, sometimes, the culprit causing scope creep is no one’s “fault”: the project itself turns out to be more involved than anyone predicted going in, despite everyone’s best efforts to define it ahead of time.

No matter why scope creep has made an appearance in your life, you want to make sure that you have the tools to fight it off, ideally ensuring that it never returns.

Follow these tips, and you’ll minimize the chances that scope creep will count you as one of its victims.

Get a Clear Written Agreement

Make sure you have a contract before you start work on every project, and make sure that it spells out detailed, specific expectations of both parties. Explicitly and overly spell it all out – this much work by that date, or this many projects every however long, for the set price of whatever, to be paid by thus-and-such a date, once these benchmarks are reached.

Include a clause that if the scope of work turns out to be different than what’s expected, you will revisit the terms of the contract with the client. The reason to have it in writing, of course, is to keep everyone honest. The client cannot expect more of you than those terms delineate, and you can hold yourself to them as well – making sure you don’t exceed or shirk on the stipulations.

If, for some reason, a contract is impossible and you still want to take the project on, make sure that you have all of the information clearly delineated in writing – an informal email with bullet points should do fine– from deadlines to compensation to expectations regarding the scope of the project. If the client refuses to put the basics in writing, walk away. That’s a red flag.

Stick to the Stipulated Terms

Over-delivering is a great way of wow-ing clients and attracting repeat business, but make sure not to go overboard with the over-delivery. If it starts to significantly deviate from the scope as described in your agreement, don’t do any more without discussing new terms and receiving a new commitment for additional payment to cover the additional work.

Depending on your personality, this may be easier or harder to carry out. If you are the kind of person who finds it difficult to say “no” – and many freelancers are like this – just force yourself. Say “no” the first time, and the second time will be easier. The third time even easier after that. You are not being rude, after all, but professional. all you have to do is remind your client of the terms of your work order in a solid but friendly manner.

Saying no from the get-go makes it more comfortable for you to set limits as necessary moving forward, but it also helps set the tone for how you work with your clients. If you miss that opportunity, backtracking or doing differently the next time can be a far greater challenge. If you don’t say no the first time, the odds on scope creep creeping up on you again are high.

Offer Constructive Outs

Don’t let the dynamic between you and your client sget awkward or sour. Be empathetic to the situation they are in, and express understanding of their needs in the context of finding a new, mutually agreeable solution.

Offer them alternatives that will either change the terms of the existing agreement or accommodate their request without compromising those terms. Suggest more than one option for potential solutions whenever you can, but feel no pressure to suggest more than two. After all, two choices are usually enough to propel the discussion forward – the client can always come back to you with a counter-proposal.

The fact that the first move to the “addendum” discussion is made by you, however, keeps you in good standing for keeping your resolve against scope creep. And make sure to smile and maintain a friendly tone in all written correspondence. That always helps.

Be Bold

When a project doesn’t turn out as you expected, you may find yourself in the throes of scope creep despite your best intentions. In cases like these, it’s totally justified to turn around and straight up ask your client for a raise.

Again, present your case with options. You can offer to provide the material such as it is at the agreed-upon price, given the agreed upon schedule. But also suggest that they pay you whatever percentage or flat sum more, for a specified number of work hours, to make sure that the project is completed as your client believes really should be. This is extremely important, given the fact that the project turned out to be more complicated, bigger, etc. than initially expected.

It’s a Partnership

You and your clients need to keep in mind that you aren’t an employee. As a service provider, your role is to provide a finite service.

This means that when you first learn about a project, you and your client have no obligation to each other. You can and should wait to establish your terms until after you have seen and clarified the scope of the project and understood all of the client’s expectations. As a partner in this process, you can suggest improvements where you see room for them. And it means that when you see a project growing beyond your stipulated terms, you need bring that to the attention of your partner in the work, the client, immediately.

Take initiative – don’t just wait for instructions. By recognizing yourself as having a stake in the project for at least the short term, you also free yourself up to be direct with the client about what needs to be done, and what that will cost. By diplomatically maintaining a healthy, open, friendly dialogue about scope, you reinforce the idea that you are serious about your commitment to the project’s success.