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Best Practices for Preventing "Scope Creep"
By Steven Burns

For professionals in the AEC fields, "scope creep" is a phrase that strikes fear into their hearts. Defined as growth in project requirements that happens after a project has started, scope creep is a common issue that drags down productivity. For architects and engineers, this "creep" is very common, as the client envisions initial designs as a blank canvas that can be adjusted with more and more features. Some of these requested changes are understandable, as developing a project is a dynamic process filled with unknowns. A project will often change due to the owner's reconsidering certain features, or perhaps when the conditions on the site necessitate an alteration. 

Despite how common scope creep is within AEC, everyone involved should understand how to limit the occurrences so they can protect profit margins and deadlines. Scope creep feeds upon itself, so if the client's "insignificant" changes are accepted, then it will become a pattern of bigger and bigger adjustments that pull staff time and require additional hard costs. 

Thankfully, professional services firms can proactively adjust their tactics to prevent the occurrence of scope creep.

Carefully Manage Project Start and End Dates
The industry runs on meeting deadlines. Meeting the completion date on time is dependent on starting on time. While this is a simple statement, it speaks to the importance of managing every task in the design and build process. If the architects and engineers get a late start on a project, then they'll be less likely to handle change orders, which could then impact the owner's satisfaction.

Utilizing a task management solution that tracks time is one way to prevent scope creep. Knowing what tasks are completed and what tasks remain gives professionals the needed context to judge if they can fit in reasonable change order requests. Without this knowledge of the project timing, the architect or engineer cannot accurately gauge if a change means they should add fees or adjust the completion schedule. Remember that changes are exponentially impactful as the deadline approaches, so teams must have the full picture of all remaining tasks at all stage of the project. 

Control the Creep with Structure
AEC professionals that accept change orders in an unstructured manner are simply asking for trouble. Set strict guidelines for clients as well as internal processes to manage change orders and prevent scope creep. On the client side, it's crucial to establish their intent. Why are they submitting this change order? Does it reflect a broader issue or concern? Does it alter how they view the project's suitability or aesthetics? 

Without a set process to convey context, the architect or engineer often starts on a change, but then has to redo work because of miscommunication. The client is not going to be happy picking up these extra hours, so the professional often has to absorb some of the costs, which makes it mark on the project's profitability. A formal submission and review process for change orders not only prevents errors, but it also shows the client they need to carefully consider the time and expense ramifications of requests. 

Manage the Time Budget
An incomplete or inaccurate time report is often the architect's or engineer's "warning sign" that a project is in trouble. The problem lies not only in the professional's willingness to record time properly, but also in the reliance on outdated manual processes and static Excel files for time recording. AEC firms should move to advanced cloud-based solutions that introduce automation to timekeeping and also tie directly into tasks. 

A modern timekeeping system not only improves accuracy and ensures the firm receives its due compensation, but it also provides a basis for thoughtful analysis. Management can look at the time spent on a typical project and then proactively identify problems. Perhaps an individual team member is not working productively, or a certain type of building is no longer profitable. Whatever the case, better time management analysis helps firms to handle change orders more efficiently. Managers can then understand the relationship between tasks and time as they relate to the project deadline, and see how (and if) change orders can be accepted. 

Transparent Communication
Scope creep can be prevented when an AEC firm explains their services at the beginning of a project. By clearly delineating what is and is not included in an agreement, the clients have an understanding of scope, and might be less inclined to introduce changes. The professional services company can also point to a document that defines scope, so they can reject change orders under defined guidelines, not what might appear as arbitrary rules. 

Open communication is also beneficial among different AEC groups. For example, architect teams can detail the interactions they will have with the construction firm, and describe the limits of liability for any damages that might happen after construction is completed. 

AEC firms can also "train" their clients on how to interact productively. If a client sends documents late, or does not respond to questions within reasonable timeframes, then they need to understand the schedule and deadlines might be adjusted. Some firms implement clauses in their contracts that relate to how there are additional hourly changes for client meetings. Such meetings often require the presence of multiple architects or engineers, and many clients expect these meetings to run long as a "discussion" of the project or a broader talk about the industry. If an architecture firm does not have control over this time and related billing, then they put profit margins at risk. They should use the penalty of additional hourly charges to prevent clients from taking up too much time through discussions or unnecessary change orders. The key is to bring such penalties and expectations to light during the contract negotiations stage, not during the third month of a 12-month project. 

By managing deadlines, introducing structure to processes, and communicating more effectively, AEC firms can proactively manage or prevent change requests and scope creep. They'll have a deeper understanding of the tasks involved with a project and can better assess if a change order is reasonable and doable within the budget/time constraints, or if they need to ask for more money. It's a transparent and equitable approach that protects profit margins while maintaining a high level of client satisfaction.

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Steve Burns, FAIA, is Chief Creative Officer of BQE Software. He is responsible for the overall look and feel of all marketing, media, branding and software applications. Additionally, he manages the BQE creative teams and develops the verbal and visual style of all R+D, Marketing, Sales and Support products and sets the standard for quality of work and the creative process. Steve was Founder and President of Orange Loft, LLC, developers of ArchiOffice - Office and Project Management software for Architects and other design professionals. In December 2009, Orange Loft was acquired by BQE Software. Steve earned a Masters of Architecture degree with Distinction in Design, from Harvard University. He co-founded the architectural firm, Burns + Beyerl Architects. Steven also is involved in his community and the arts.

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