Project Management

How to Avoid Scope Creep and Gold Plating in Project Management

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How to Avoid Scope Creep and Gold Plating in Project Management
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How to Avoid Scope Creep and Gold Plating in Project Management

Most of us learn about scope creep and gold plating the hard way.

Maybe it’s a home remodel, and the project manager agrees to “just” add another sconce in the bathroom, which leads to a costly electrical repair and fifteen hours of work. Or an enthusiastic developer builds a close relationship with the client, and unbeknownst to anyone else, writes extra code that leads to hours of additional testing, developing and re-work.

Like a thick, enveloping fog, the aftereffects of scope creep and gold plating are upon us before we even know it.

Projects, oftentimes, commence with a wealth of assumptions and miscommunications. And it’s only in the execution that these become apparent. And so change is a part of every project, regardless. Scope management monitors changes, and ensures they don’t lead to re-work and free labor. A change management system is key to reducing scope creep and gold plating in a project.

In this post, we’ll look at the impacts of scope creep and gold plating, and explore how to mitigate them with a change management plan.

Scope Creep vs Gold Plating

Scope Creep vs Gold Plating

Scope creep and gold plating are similar in that they both are unmonitored changes in a project. They differ, however, in their causes and effects.

What Is Scope Creep?

Scope creep is an additional requirement, requested by the client, that is not included in the initial scope agreement. It may not affect the budget or the timeline.

Generally, as the name suggests, scope creep starts small but can grow much bigger. For example, the initial requirement may be to add some additional text to a webpage. Then, step by step, it increases to a new layout for the whole website.

Scope creep does not follow a change process. It’s an unauthorized and undocumented increase in the project’s scope.

What Causes Scope Creep?

Generally speaking, people are on the lookout for scope creep, as it creates tangles in a project. However, it almost always occurs anyway. Here are its three principal causes.

1. Poor Project Planning

Oftentimes, a project expands and changes because the scope was never clearly defined in the first place.

If the scope document fails to capture the requirements from every stakeholder, or describes each requirement vaguely, this usually means that the project will morph and change during the execution phase.

At other times, a project commences before the planning is complete. The procurement summary or work breakdown structure hasn’t been written, and so it’s unclear just how many resources a project requires. This creates inaccurate estimates that require updating during execution.

2. An Unsupervised Team

Scope creep also occurs when a project manager fails to keep abreast of the team and its interaction with the client. Sometimes a side relationship develops between the client and a team member, creating a channel for the client to solicit additional work without following proper change protocol.

3. A Client Likes What She Sees

Finally, scope creep can be a vote of confidence from the client. It means she likes the work she’s seen so far in the project, and wants more of the same.

What Is Gold Plating?

Gold plating is the addition of a feature to a project that is not requested by the customer, and is not in the original scope document. It’s intentionally added by the team and doesn’t follow any change procedure or protocol.

Gold-plating generally seeks to “spruce up” a project. For example, if the project is to paint a fence, the painter may decide to add a latch. When the client sees the final fence, he may or may not be pleased with the latch, as it wasn’t something he requested, nor was it part of the initial agreement.

What Causes Gold Plating

What Causes Gold Plating?

Generally speaking, a team works to fulfill the requirements outlined in the original scope document, and doesn’t color outside of these lines. So why then does gold-plating occur? There are two principal causes of it.

1. Compensation for Poor Performance

Oftentimes, when a team underperforms with a deliverable, it seeks to make up for the deficiency. Sometimes, the team erroneously thinks that adding a little extra to the project will smooth things over, or “gold-plate,” the situation.

2. A “Meet and Exceed Expectations” Mindset

Every project manager and team wants to build a strong reputation and to have returning clients. This drive to excel oftentimes results in overwrought efforts, including the addition of new requirements to the project.

It’s like ordering something in a restaurant and the waiter bringing you a complimentary side and salad, with the hope to receive a good online review. As anyone can see, sometimes this method works, and at other times, it backfires.

What Is the Difference Between Scope Creep and Gold Plating?

Scope creep and gold plating both are undocumented changes within projects, but they differ slightly from each other. Here are two key distinctions.

  1. Gold plating is an undocumented change that is not requested by the customer. It’s initiated by the team, and oftentimes is performed without the customer even knowing. Scope creep, on the other hand, is an additional requirement the customer wants to add to the project.
  2. The motivations and causes behind scope creep and gold plating are different. Scope creep is usually caused by misunderstandings and poor project planning. Gold plating, on the other hand, is usually an effort to stroke the customer. It’s an extra that’s intended to win favor or smooth things over.

Dangers of Scope Creep and Gold Plating

What Are the Dangers of Scope Creep and Gold Plating?

Both scope creep and gold plating impact a project negatively, and in similar ways.

1. Unplanned Risks

An additional requirement adds new risks to the project. For example, if the project is a home remodel and the additional work is an unplanned light fixture, this opens the project up to the risk of electrical problems.
This additional risk was never addressed at the beginning of a project, and so there is no plan in place for mitigating or avoiding it. It may lead to additional work and expenses.

2. No Documentation

A paper trail is always helpful, particularly in a long project. It keeps people on the same page with respect to expectations. However, gold plating and scope creep don’t use proper change management processes, and so they have no paper trail. This easily leads to major miscommunications.

How to Prevent Scope Creep and Gold Plating?

To a certain extent, changes in a project are guaranteed. Even with the best laid plans, things come up, unforeseen events occur and people change their mind. At the same time, there are several steps that a project manager can take to minimize changes in projects.

1. Write a Thorough Project Plan

The best way to rein in project changes is to have a clear understanding of the project at the beginning. A long one-on-one with the client helps to outline all of the requirements, eliminate misunderstandings and clear up assumptions.
The planning stage is also the time to educate the clients about the process, and outline the work and schedule with a work breakdown structure and a resource schedule.

Finally, a thorough scope document ensures that everyone is on the same page.

2. Supervise the Team

Close communication with the team also minimizes gold-plating and scope creep. A daily scrum meeting keeps everyone abreast of client requests and any proposed changes. It also allows the project manager to monitor the team, and ensure they’re focused exclusively on fulfilling requirements.

3. Have a Change Control Process

A simple change process that everyone understands ensures that nothing occurs without the entire team knowing about it. It also serves to minimize project risks and maintain a good paper trail.

Although change is always part of a project, these steps help to mitigate change and scope creep.

Change Management Plan

A Successful Change Management Plan

Eliminating undocumented changes in a project requires a change management plan. A process that documents changes and communicates them to the team keeps all the team’s efforts in alignment.

Let’s look at the benefits of a change management plan, and the four steps it includes.

Benefits of a Change Management Plan

A good change management plan keeps processes smooth during project execution. There isn’t any scope creep or gold plating when everyone understands what is expected, and knows the correct procedures for making a change.

It also minimizes waste, as the team only works on those activities that add value to the client.

Four Steps of a Change Management Plan

Although everyone participates in making changes, change management is the responsibility of the project manager. These are the four steps the project manager oversees.

1. Change Request

The first step identifies the request and the reason. This step can be initiated by any member of the team, or by suggestions or feedback from the client.

A suggested change may be a recovery plan, intended to get the team back on schedule. Or else, the change may be to modify a deliverable that performs poorly in testing.

It entails identifying the “what” of the change, and the “why.” This stage also documents how things need to change.

2. Change Analysis

Next, everyone on the team gathers to discuss the implications of the change. Particular feedback is sought from those with the most knowledge and those who are most affected by the change.

This stage considers the impact of the change on the budget, timeline and scope, as well as any new risks the change might introduce to the project.

It also considers alternatives to the change, perhaps to increase resources and crash activities instead.

3. Change Approval

If the project manager believes that the change is workable, then it is written up and approved, and assigned an effective date.

4. Change Implementation

The project manager oversees the change to be sure that the team is in alignment. He or she communicates the change to everyone and completes the documentation. The change is integrated into the project plan, and the resources are redistributed to accommodate it.

These are the principal steps to a change management plan. Managing scope creep and change requires discipline. This process makes the difference between a team that reacts to changes, and one that follows a plan.

These steps can look a lot different depending on the nature of the project and the team. The critical step is to determine a change management process at the beginning of a project, and communicate the processes to the entire team.

Scope Creep and Gold Plating


Projects take on life of their own. Even when everything is nicely set in place, the execution is always different from the planned scenario.

Change is about as certain as death and taxes, that is to say. It happens when a project is well defined, and it happens when a project is poorly defined.

However, a project manager can take steps to monitor and minimize change. Supervising a team is key to reducing gold plating, and a good change management process minimizes scope creep. Change management allows a project to remain within its initial constraints.

If you’re managing a remote team, supervision and communication are always a challenge. Check out Teamly, the project management platform that allows a team to keep abreast of one another, all day long.

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