What is Scope Creep? It is where a project "bloats" and expands out of control so that cost and deadline suffer, and it is actually very common. Whereas you may blame it on the sheer number of people involved doing a flexible task, it can happen in the simplest of situations.

For example, if one man's project was to paint his roof - there's the deliverable and the end in sight, and he has the skills to get it done and knows how long it will take. However, let's say that when he's up there, he notices a loose tile, so fixes that. Same with cleaning the gutters. Then he hurts his arm and has to get his son to help him. The project went ahead, it still had the same general goal, but now it's going to take a lot more time and money. If you apply this to the business world, where things can be more complex than a bit of DIY, you can easily see how scope creep happens. You can expect it in some form for every project, but here are three ways to reduce or prevent it:

1. Don't ever start the project without a project plan

It sounds obvious, but sometimes in business, projects are started before they are defined. For example, perhaps you've hired the staff a bit too early so you're anxious about them sat twiddling their thumbs, you may be tempted to "give them a job to do" and get the ball rolling. Unless you're very careful, this can be the start of scope creep.

The same goes for not working out someone's role in the project until later on - someone may just start doing certain tasks because that's what they've always done and that's what they presumed they'd be doing, but nobody actually told them what their specific tasks were for the project - this will end up as scope creep. Make sure you identify the individuals who will "drive" the project and ensure that they have clear guidelines, deliverables, deadlines and budgets in place before the project begins. A PERT chart in software such as Microsoft Project can be a great help to do this.

2. Break the project down into milestones as soon as possible

Every task should be part of a corresponding milestone, so that anyone working on that facet of the project can see the short or long term goal that they are heading for. Lack of focus is inviting scope creep in with a welcome mat, so make sure you don't lose time or money having people doing not what you asked, but something similar to it. Make sure everyone has the same vision. Also ensure that your milestones are realistic when you set them, because you're not going to get 100% success or 100% delivery of a perfect project milestone every time.

A good rule of thumb is to add another 20% for unexpected events, loss of staff, budget problems and so on. If you reach a milestone under budget and ahead of time, then you can use the additional time to polish and hone the final result.

3. Communication is key

If anything makes a change to the fabric of your project, then let everyone know who may be affected. If you're using software such as MS Project to help you, make sure everyone involved on the project has regular access to it. Don't presume either that they will check for changes as often as you do - make sure you "touch base" with your teams regularly, and that they should be reporting their progress often. If there is a problem, communication is key because you'll save time and money that could be wasted trying to patch an error made last week, or last month, when someone "should have said something". Lack of communication in a project will cause lack of focus, which will always cause scope creep.

Remember, scope creep will probably happen - it's almost an ubiquitous part of project management. However if you follow the steps above, you should be able to tackle it head on, before it - literally - creeps up on you!