2012-03-05

Scope Creep is your Friend

We all have those clients – the ones that have a huge idea but only a tiny budget. It is impossible to deliver on their grand vision but maybe you can help them with a first step. And then there is the “just had a cool idea” client who creates scope creep.

As design projects get larger with more deliverables and much more coding scope creep becomes a real issue. The default answer is to contract tightly so scope creep is prohibited. But without some scope creep the project risks becoming irrelevant to the client. The unhappy client then might look elsewhere for the next job.

Both these clients can be dealt with in much the same way. Project management techniques currently being explored in software development (Agile and Lean) have direct parallels to design projects. We can start with some fuzzy overall goals and then iterate towards them learning as we go. This means that what was once evil scope creep is now considered a vital part of thinking and learning about the needs of the project.

Some of the commercial designers I have spoken to recently have started doing something similar though the iteration was more driven by a sales need to generate more income from previous customers. The subtle shift in iterative design projects is to treat every customer as a relationship where you are both journeying together. Each small project is another step closer to the goal.

The sales script goes like this: Keep selling the customer on their enthusiasm for their big idea. Talk universe conquering stuff. Then get the client talking about a small first step. Make it something of real value but requiring little risk/effort by either side. Fit within the tiny budget.

Completing that first step project is like dating. Each party gets to see if things with the other will work out without having wasted too much energy. There is an implied expectation that further work will arise but client or designer are both free to depart at this point. That is the sales advantage of this approach – the client is already thinking about the next small job to do with your design company.

After that first step hold a "retrospective"/reflection both within the design studio and with the client. Were their processes that could be improved? What worked well? What could be improved? What did we learn from this project? What are the new ideas we have for the next small project? – see no longer evil scope creep but friendly extra business.

As small tasks are completed (and presumably you’ve been paid) momentum and energy begin to build around the project. Listen to the client and together agree on “next steps” that will bring value to their business.

For the free-lancer a few tasks will tell you if the client is worth building a relationship with. If the client has complex needs then consider offering to go on retainer so that they (and you) have greater control over the budget.

Working in small iterative projects with retrospection before quickly iterating helps to build stronger relationships and should result in projects that are more relevant. Treating scope creep as a positive thing will eliminate a source of negativity in the client-designer relationship. Scope creep is then your friend because it brings repeat business to you.