One of the biggest challenges for any small business owner who works on a “project” basis – whether you’re a construction contractor, project manager, consultant, or other professional services provider – is managing the issue of “scope creep.”

How can you keep the scope of a project from expanding beyond your budget? Many episodes of “scope creep” happen with good intentions on both sides: the client asks, “Can you handle just one more minor request?” Or the contractor thinks, “While I’m at it, I might as well fix this other problem that we discovered once the work was underway…”

But before you know it, the project has exceeded the budgeted time, transforming from a profitable project into a time-sucking nightmare. Scope creep can wreak havoc on the successful operations of a small business, sapping the entrepreneur’s morale and causing problems for other clients as well – if you’re working too many unpaid hours on a project whose scope has crept, then that means you can’t devote enough time and attention to your full-paying clients.

Here are three concepts to help stop scope creep before it starts – or after it happens:

  • Set expectations. One of the biggest causes of scope creep is a lack of communication. Before a project begins, both the client and the contractor need to understand exactly what work is going to be done, and exactly what is included (or not included) in the scope of the project. If you’re a web developer or software developer, does your budget include debugging? If so, how much? If you’re a graphic designer, does your budget include multiple revisions, and if so, how many? If you’re a leadership coach or training consultant, make sure the project contract establishes how much contact time you’re expected to have with the client, and specify any follow-up sessions or availability.
  • Establish milestones. No matter what kind of project you’re working on, clear milestones will help keep the work on track and ensure that both the client and contractor are happy with the process. Break the project down into smaller deliverable items. Communicate along the way. Make sure that each piece of the overall project is being delivered to the client’s satisfaction (and within the contractor’s expected range of profitable compensation).
  • If needed, ask for more money later. Sometimes projects take on a life of their own, and it can be difficult to adjust to the expanding scope until the damage is done. If a project ends up being much more time-consuming and complicated than initially expected, the contractor has a choice to make: you can either keep working for less money than you need, or ask for more money to compensate you for the additional work. This is a delicate balance to strike. On the one hand, you don’t want to make the client unhappy, and you don’t want to be unethical by “holding a project hostage” while asking for more money. However, if a project has clearly expanded beyond the agreed-upon scope specialized in the contract (if a client hired you to build a new front porch, but then asked for a new set of front steps to go with it), you are within your rights to ask for more money. Or, if the project has simply become much “bigger” than either you or the client had anticipated, consider going back to the client after delivering the work and ask for a bonus.

Sometimes clients are willing to pay more for good work. And if the client wants to work with you again, then they will want to keep you happy.

For example, I once hired a contractor to replace the front steps on our house. The contractor and his team did an excellent job of putting in a new set of brick steps, but they left a huge pile of dirt on our driveway, which I then had to spend five hours removing. I don’t know why they left the dirt there; perhaps they felt that dirt removal was outside of the scope of the project. But I would have gladly paid a more money to have them remove the leftover dirt. This was a missed opportunity for them.

The best clients are willing to pay you what you deserve. If a project has caused you to go above and beyond the call of duty, it never hurts to ask for a bit more compensation.