People-pleasing is a dangerous game, especially when you're running a small business. The instinct to impress your customers might mean you're agreeing to things outside the scope of your project. If you keep saying "yes" to every request for changes or additions to your project, you'll end up with a never-ending project that isn't financially worth the effort. And there's a term for this -- project creep.

No, project creep is not that quiet guy on your team who sits in the corner and makes off-color remarks. Project creep is a real thing that can drain money from your project and leave you with frustrated employees.

Recognizing project creep

Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

Project creep refers to any changes or updates made to a project outside its original scope. Essentially, your project is literally creeping further and further outside your control. The changes affect your project's budget, schedule, costs and allocation of resources. A creeping project compromises your goals and milestones because it creates competition for your available resources.

It's true, not all changes made to a project are bad -- an experienced project manager should expect to make some changes to the original outlay of the project as challenges come up. But these changes or adjustments shouldn't cause your project to veer entirely off course.

Projects creep when project managers accept or implement changes without checking out what the effects will be. Both your team's deliverables and milestones increase, while the project's cost and timetable stay put. Before you know it, you aren't keeping up with project requirements, and the customer is disappointed.

6 ways to avoid project creep

You can avoid a majority of project creep causes by applying better task management techniques. When you understand a project's requirements and have a detailed execution plan, you can set clear limits against unnecessary changes. Before you make any major adjustments, run them by the team and the client to make sure they're necessary.

1. Keep and review your project plan

One trick that works well for many project managers is to have a specific document that outlines the plan for the project, the timeline and its requirements. That way, you can quickly refer to it during the execution. Having these details accessible makes it easy to remember exactly what you've agreed on. While referring back to the original project plan is enough to set you on course, there are other steps you can take to keep your project from creeping.

2. Get a signed contract

A detailed and clear contract is critical in establishing the expectations from the beginning between you and your clients. The contract should cover timelines, milestones, deliverables and responsibilities of the client and your company. The information should be available to all stakeholders before the work starts.

Make sure any deliverables listed in the contract are a reflection of the stakeholders' expectations. Establishing clear expectations avoids too many change requests during the course of the project. Your contract should also have a clause that gives instructions for any changes that need to be made.

3. Plan ahead for changes

It's inevitable -- at some point you'll get that call, asking for "one more thing..."

It's rare to have a project that goes off without a hitch. Make a contingency plan for when these issues come up. If you have a protocol in place, along with a clear pricing structure for add-on work, you can avoid getting taken for a ride. Ask someone on your team to be in charge of watching out for scope creep.

They can review and approve any changes or additions, making sure they're billed properly. You'll also want to make sure you have the manpower to complete the added work without overloading your employees.

4. Plan a kick-off meeting

Once you have all the details regarding the scope of your work down, hold a meeting to kick off the project. Invite all stakeholders to attend the meeting so you can go over the project details one last time. Review milestones together and remind each party of their roles and responsibilities.

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

5. Learn to say "no"

Just because your client wants something done doesn't mean you have to do it. Learn to decline requests for changes that don't add value to projects or would negatively affect the plan in the long term. Explain to your clients the reason you're saying no, and work with them to chart the best way forward.

6. Give clients an option

If your client insists on the change, ask if you can work on their requests as a separate project after completing the current project. You can also give them the option of either adjusting the expenses and timeframe or proceeding with the current plan. Help your clients see the options they do have instead of what they don't.

Saying goodbye to project creep

Look out -- a project can creep up on you if you fail to stick to the plan. Avoid project creep by having a detailed project plan and timeline. Have a backup plan for changes and learn to say no to unnecessary changes. At the end of the day, set clear boundaries and expect your clients to respect them.