Scope creep: the silent killer of great freelance working

Avoiding misunderstandings and defending your boundaries

It was a staple of pre-pandemic startup culture, the ads with phrases like 'above and beyond', and 'always going the extra mile'. And as a freelancer, of course you want to surprise and delight, under-promise and over-deliver - it's all part of being great to work with, right?

But how far should the extra mile be, and what about those clients who keep moving the finish line? You know the ones I mean. The ones who will always want to squeeze a little more out of the deal, and push you to do work that is out of contract and wasn't budgeted for. If you have moment, it really won't take long, if you could just...

Arghh. We all quickly learn to avoid those kind of people, in work as in life 🚩

But, when you're providing freelance services, scope creep can still be a problem, as I learned the hard way. There are lots of reasons this might happen, and they can happen in the best of working relationships, but the good news is, a lot of the problem can be prevented. My fixes come from the freelance writing world, but I hope they'll be of use whatever service or product you're providing, especially if it's generating or creating something.

Quoting on a loose brief

We've all been there, when we're tempted throw out a quick costing, based on inadequate detail. Maybe we have a sense the prospect is fishing or time-wasting, or you think it's a similar gig to one you did recently and you can price it without digging into the details. But if you dash out a quick number without paying enough attention to the small print or what's missing, then it might come back to bite you if they want to proceed.

Much better to get all the information up front - even if it's late, or you're busy or just not in the mood for email tennis. And equally true if it's your dream gig, and you just want to bite their hand off and say yes... as dreams can turn to nightmares, if your intentions don't match up.

So don't guess, don't assume, or if you have to make assumptions state them very clearly. Otherwise, they might be saying 'yes' to something completely different to what you had in mind. Oh, you meant €, I was working in $ in my head! You mean you just write the words, and we have to get someone else to pitch it to the tier one publications who have no interest in our product..?

While sometimes the scope will be obvious, it's still better to state it in writing.

And other times, it won't be obvious at all. Depending on the size of the project, your initial quote might be for scope definition - especially if this includes gathering costs for deliverables you will ultimately outsource and co-ordinate (for example, if you're a writer who will partner with a graphic designer to produce a white paper.)

Missing details from your quote

Just like a request for proposal can be full of holes, so can your response - and that's definitely on you, if it happens. Your proposal needs to explicitly address WHAT you will deliver, WHEN the key deadlines and milestones are (for payments and deliverables), and the HOW as much as it relates to managing expectations.

It's essential here to include limiting factors and get very specific, so that everyone knows exactly what to expect. Of course you can put these in a standard terms document, but be sure to refer to it in your proposal, so everyone is reminded (that your product logo package includes a total of 3 initial treatments, or your copy revision process includes 2 rounds of editing, or whatever.)

Get clear, and get professional

One way to focus your mind on creating great proposals is to use them as a way to demonstrate that YOU have thought of everything, even if the client hasn't.

If you feel like their ideas are woolly or generally underdeveloped, you can be really helpful here by including your explicit assumptions about timelines and milestones and workflow. If you can see that some decisions are yet to be made on their side, you can pin down critical dates or lead times, and you can also factor in and get clear about how you will be briefed,

For example: "Costs include a synchronous kick-off call of up to 1 hour at the start of the project, and a wash-up debrief at the conclusion of phase A. All other communication will be asynchronous for ease of reference." Because none of us ever costed in time for the client to think out loud at us for an entire afternoon while they attempt to figure out what on earth they wanted in the first place... (or if you know they DO need to accommodate this, then cost for a creative workshop up front.)

My standard terms for content creation include one round of substantive edits, so I make it very clear that they need to get all internal stakeholders to weigh in with their comments before they hand it back to me. This means the product manager has internal leverage to get the marketing director to sign off the new content before the deadline, otherwise there will be further edits which are pre-defined as out of scope and therefore chargeable.

Creativity is fuzzy

The reasons we have to get clear about scope, is that most creative and knowledge-based work is very hard to pin down as unambigously done. Yes, we could revise that piece of copy 40 times, and make incremental improvements (or murder it completely, and after a few rounds you won't even know the difference.) But we have to agree on a point of being good enough that we can all move on to the next thing in our lives. This where project deadlines really help, incidentally!

There's also that keenness to please, to be brilliant to work with, to go the extra mile or five... which can often be blended with an unhealthy dose of impostor syndrome. Could I make it even better if I completely rewrote it? Maybe! But that doesn't mean I should do so, not at this point. You have to separate the creative artist from the business professional, who needs to get this one invoiced and put to bed.

You can use your standard terms to lock down the broad expectations and make it totally clear what you need from them in order to work successfully together.

And things can still go wrong.

I worked on an ebook earlier this year, and we did the one round of edits, responding to feedback from several stakeholders as expected, because it was a complicated technical piece. I sent it back, and waited for them to come back to me for the final proof-read and polish as per our agreed terms.

But, the document I got back was NOT the one I had been working on all month, and (I thought) written and edited already. I barely recognised it. It was half as long again, with the formatting all messed up and the order of sections changed... Because, "the CEO added some new stuff in 🤦🏻‍♀️"

Okay yes, I can edit and smooth all this in, but it is: 1. out of scope on the original quote; and 2. going to be at a rush rate... because the crowbarring in of additional chapters and chunks by an unrelated voice at that point created a ton of extra work, right before their publishing deadline.

Not the way I like to work, but, we got it over the line on time somehow.

The way I do like to work

Defining scope and managing expectations is one aspect of how I do business, and it may or may not be an issue for you as a freelancer. As a hirer of freelance services, I genuinely believe it's helpful when someone thinks through all the contingencies at the start, and helps get my own thinking straight.

It's one of the flavoursome twists I add to my work, as a little sprinkle on top... Far from unique in itself, yet, the total package is what matters.

Today's podcast digs in deeper to that total taste:

What about you - Tutti Frutti, or Simple Strawberry?

It's your choice!