Rows of gold bars for article about gold plating in project management

Gold plating in project management is the practice of delivering more than the customer requested.

If that sounds like a positive thing, it’s not.

But gold plating occurs frequently nonetheless.

Project managers are trying to make customers and stakeholders happy with the project deliverable, and it can be tempting to try to exceed expectations.

As a project manager, it is important to understand the meaning of gold plating and how it can affect your projects.

Whether you’re new to project management or have been in the field for many years, gold plating is something you need to understand so you can quickly and easily recognize it and stamp it out.

In this article, we’ll take a look at gold plating, how and why it occurs in project management, the differences between gold plating and scope creep, and how to prevent getting caught up in the trap of gold plating as a project manager.

What is Gold Plating in Project Management?

Let’s be clear: gold plating should be avoided, as it is inherently negative despite coming from a place of good intentions.

The concept of gold plating in project management involves adding features to a project outside the original scope that was agreed upon with the customer or primary stakeholder.

Many project managers wind up gold plating with the best intentions.

The aim is typically to impress the customer by going “the extra mile” on a project.

Despite the project manager’s intention to go above and beyond on the project, gold plating is regarded as a poor project management practice.

It’s easy to miss out on why gold plating in project management is bad. Nothing could go wrong with adding just a few extra features to a customer’s project, right?

Not exactly.

Gold plating introduces risk, something project managers are tasked with controlling from the outset.

Gold plating is more common among less experienced project managers and developers — all of us here have absolutely made the mistake ourselves! — but let’s dig deeper into why it should be avoided.

Why Should Project Managers Avoid Gold Plating?

There are two possible outcomes when you gold plate your project deliverables.

Outcome No. 1: The customer is happy and impressed with the new features.

With this outcome, the project manager often feels proud of the extra effort put into the deliverable, particularly if the additions did not increase the project’s cost and timeline, and if the potential added risk did not materialize.

But make no mistake — by adding features that were not requested or agreed upon, you’ve reduced the value of your original project deliverable and estimate.

You’ve also raised the bar on any future expectations the customer might have, and those increased expectations rarely come with a relative increase in pay.

In other words, you may now be expected to continue increasing scope within whatever budget and timeline is established.

Outcome No. 2: The customer is upset and does not want the added features.

In this case, the customer might refuse to accept the deliverable altogether, rendering all your extra efforts completely destructive — we’ve seen it happen!

This outcome can cause lasting damage to the customer relationship, not to mention nullification of the existing contract.

Remember, if the added features you’ve allowed into the deliverable weren’t requested or approved during the project’s initiation and planning stages, there could very well be a good reason for that; the customer may have reason for not actually wanting the “features” you decided to add.

This is not to say that new features should never be added to a project after it is underway; but those new features need to pass through the project’s change control process, receive signoff from the customer and any other affected stakeholders, and ultimately the project manager needs to determine whether those changes in scope will affect cost or timeline.

Otherwise, those changes have led to scope creep, which is similar to gold plating but different in important ways. Let’s take a look.

What is Scope Creep?

Scope creep occurs when a project’s scope is expanded without a corresponding adjustment to the project’s budget, timeline, and/or available resources.

When a project’s scope, budget, and schedule are not clearly defined, the customer may take advantage of this to ask the project manager to add more features under the same budget and timeline.

As a project management professional, it is tough but important that you keep your project within the agreed upon scope, budget, and schedule.

Scope creep in project management may occur for several reasons, including:

  • Excessive customer requests and interference without a clear change control process
  • Failure to clearly define the project’s scope requirements and expectations
  • Miscommunications between customer and project team

Differences Between Gold Plating and Scope Creep in Project Management

Gold plating and scope creep are fairly similar.

Both involve adding features not initially included in the scope of the project.

But gold plating and scope creep differ in the following important ways:

Gold plating involves adding extra features to the project while maintaining the original scope. The project management team usually initiates it.

For example, let’s say you are developing a mobile application for a customer, and one of your team members has an idea that can add extra functionality to the application.

As a project management professional, you are expected to make sure the change request (and it is a change request, even if the project team initiates it) goes through the project’s approved change control process, which in this case might start with consulting the customer to see if they want to explore the change further.

However, if the changes are implemented without going through that change control process, you have just allowed gold plating into your project.

Scope creep involves inflating the agreed upon project scope without a related change to budget or timeline. And it usually begins with a customer or stakeholder requesting changes to the project.

Suppose you are creating a new software platform, and the customer approaches you or a team member to request an addition to the project’s scope without making necessary adjustments to the project’s budget or timeline.

That is scope creep.

In standard project management practice, the customer should observe the agreed upon change control process, which might include approaching the project manager to discuss whether the needed changes might fit into the established project requirements.

  • RELATED: What Exactly is Project Scope Management?

  • How Can Project Managers Avoid Gold Plating?

    Avoiding gold plating is key to your project management success. Here are a few tips to help:

    • Capture all project requirements: This happens early in the project lifecycle, and it’s important to be as thorough as possible with this task. It’s also important to ensure all stakeholders sign off on the requirements and the project scope.
    • Establish a change control process: Another task that should happen early in the project lifecycle, establishing a change control process is important to make sure everyone involved in the project — including stakeholders and the project team — knows how change requests should be submitted and the exact process they will go through if they are to be reviewed and accepted or denied.
    • Present clear requirements for the project team: Ensure your team members do not add extra features to the project without first going through the proper channels.
    • Maintain open communication and monitor the project: Monitor the project closely and communicate frequently with your customer and team members to ensure everyone’s expectations remain within the agreed scope.

    In Summary

    Project management can be complex, but avoiding gold plating, as well as scope creep, will make your work easier.

    Managing your customer’s expectations, reviewing all suggested changes, and adjusting project details as needed will put you on the right track to project management success.