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How To Avoid Working For Free And Why It’s OK To Say No

Have you ever agreed a price for a job with a client, only for them to move the goalposts at a later date – forcing you to work more hours for no extra money?

So-called scope creep is the scourge of many small business owners, a lot of whom feel unable to ask for more money in case they lose clients.

Luckily, however, there are ways to avoid being caught in the scope creep trap.


What is scope creep?

Coined by project managers, the term scope creep refers to any situation when the scope of a project changes and creates more work for those delivering it.

This could be because a client introduces new requirements, changes their mind what they want, or asks for the work to be done more quickly.


What causes scope creep?

There are lots of reasons why scope creep can become a problem – and it’s not always the client’s fault.

In cases where an employee is taking on the job, for example, neglecting to properly explain to them exactly what is needed at the outset can lead to costly misunderstandings.

More often, however, it is due to a lack of clarity around what the client wants.

According to a 2017 survey by the Project Management Institute, 37% of project failures globally are due to poorly defined objectives and milestones.

Common causes of scope creep include:

  • A lack of clarity about what the client wants
  • Failure to include a strategy for how extra work should be charged
  • A lack of understanding on your part about how much work a project will entail

Key takeaways

  • Scope creep is not always the client’s fault.
  • Making sure everyone involved knows what is required is the best way to avoid it.


What can I do when a client moves the goalposts?

Nobody wants to work for free. But nobody wants to lose clients either.

That’s why so many small business owners end up accepting the extra work that comes with scope creep.

However, agreeing to unreasonable requests will devalue your work and may also lead to the client having unrealistic expectations going forward.

So it’s important to take a stand if you recognise the conditions of a job are becoming unacceptable.

Ways to do this include offering to take on a new target but only if another can be dropped, and offering to do the extra work for an additional fee.

Key takeaways

  • Agreeing to unreasonable requests will devalue your work.
  • Offering to replace a less critical part of the work with the new requirement is one way to manage scope creep.

37% of project failures globally are due to poorly defined objectives and milestones.

Project Management Institute

Five ways to avoid scope creep

Following these five steps will help you avoid having to choose between working for free and having an awkward conversation with a client.


1. Define the job and record the requirements

Achieving clarity at the start of a piece of work is the single most important thing you can do to prevent scope creep.

Talk to the client to find out exactly what is required, and resolve any conflicts between different individuals on the client team.

Then think about what delivering the work will mean for you in terms of both time and resources.

Create a document that sets all this out and share it online so everyone can check it.

“It’s important to get as much detail set out at the beginning as possible,” said Raffi Cherbedjian, who used to run a graphic design business and is now a life coach.

“Sometimes clients don’t really know what they want or need, which will create problems later on.”


2. Anticipate changes and set related charges

Time does not stand still, and anything from government policy changes to a new chief executive could impact the requirements of a piece of work.

Anticipate this – and lower the chances of you ending up out of pocket – by including clear guidelines to the extra charges that will be payable if changes are made.

“Set out how much it will cost the client to make any changes to the agreed plan,” Cherbedjian said.

“If they know it will cost more, there will be no disagreement over paying the bill.”


3. Establish a clear schedule

Once you know what you have to achieve, make sure everyone is also clear on when it needs to be done.

Leave a bit of room for ironing out any issues that arise where possible.

If it’s a long-term job, it also makes sense to ask to meet with the client at regular intervals to ensure you are on the right track.


4. Check everyone is on the same page

Once you think you have a good understanding of the project, go back to the client with your project schedule and ensure all the elements they expect to see are included on your task list.

If you are speaking to one member of a management team, it’s also a good idea to ask them to check the other members of that team share the same vision and expectations.

“You need to make sure they understand what they are asking and what that will involve for you,” Cherbedijian added.


5. Talk to your team

If you are going to be working on the job with colleagues, the final step you should take to avoid scope creep is to discuss it with them.

Make sure they know they can come to you if it becomes clear an element of the work is not achievable under the terms set out in the task list.



Failing to manage scope creep can devalue your work and eat into your profits.

Ensuring everyone knows what you are trying to achieve and what consequences there will be should the requirements change are the best ways to avoid this.

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Jessica Brown

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor. After starting her career in 2000 at the Daily Express, she spent two years at The Sunday Times before going freelance in 2006. Her work appears in national newspapers such as The Telegraph, on websites such as BBC Business, and in a variety of magazines.

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