Avoiding Gold Plating in Project Management: Aligning Expectations, Not Overdelivering

An old friend used to say, “If I ask for chicken, don’t give me lobster.” For some, that might seem like an unwelcome upgrade. But the truth is, exceeding others’ expectations can be a risky gamble and can lead to outright confusion.

This principle holds true in our projects and client relationships, specifically concerning the concept of overdelivering or “gold plating,” where unapproved extra features or services may cause more problems than gratitude. Consider it as reverse scope creep.

So, why would anyone want to do this? Let’s take a moment and delve into the meaning of gold plating, its causes, and reasons to avoid it. By gaining a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, we can work towards developing a more efficient project team, one that focuses on fulfilling client expectations rather than adding unnecessary features.

A Closer Look at Gold Plating

What is gold plating, and what triggers it?

Gold plating occurs when a project manager or team member assumes that a project would benefit from an extra feature and includes it without seeking the client’s consent. This addition exceeds the agreed-upon project scope. However, this can be avoided by leveraging experts who can lead you team in the right direction. Our team at Arithmetic, for instance, has guided many agencies towards maintaining the project scope, avoiding unnecessary additions, and focusing on meeting client expectations. Reach out to avoid issue like:

  1. Prolonging the project completion timeline

  2. Frustrating the client

  3. Wasting resources to remove or fix the extra additions

  4. Eroding trust among stakeholders who expect specific instructions to be followed

  5. Undervaluing our own time and expertise

Gold plating typically yields diminishing returns, as the extra effort put into including additional features or services rarely pays off.

Various factors can motivate this behavior, such as:

  1. Trying to win the client’s favor with complimentary additions or upgrades

  2. Seeking recognition for particular skills

  3. Misinterpreting or misunderstanding the project scope

  4. Diverting attention from a weak or flawed area of the project

Regardless of the motivation, gold plating doesn’t serve the client’s best interests. Let’s explore some examples of this in project management.

Gold Plating in Practice

Consider a client who requested a simple brochure design, specifying a minimalist layout with text and a few images. The project manager, thinking a more elaborate design would be better, adds intricate patterns and extra images. While this might seem visually appealing, it disregards the client’s requirements. The client may request that the team spends more time and effort removing these unnecessary additions.

In another scenario, imagine a client commissions a mobile app with specific features. One team member, having extra time, decides to add an additional unplanned feature. Upon reviewing the app, the client finds that this extra feature is incompatible with the intended user experience. Consequently, the team must spend extra time removing the feature, causing delays and straining the relationship with the client.

These examples demonstrate the importance of adhering to client expectations instead of making assumptions about what’s best for the project.

Dodging Gold Plating – Some Simple Steps

To prevent gold plating, focus on effective communication and follow these steps:

  1. Co-create a crystal-clear project scope with the client, put it in writing, and seal the deal with a signed agreement from both parties.

  2. As the project’s manager, keep your team on track with laser-focused attention to the project’s ultimate vision, gently nudging any strays back in line.

  3. Maintain open communication among all parties, especially the client, ensuring the project scope remains rock-solid.

  4. Focus on perfecting the project as planned, rather than adding flashy extras. If team members finish early, have them review, test, and evaluate existing work for a polished finish.

Striking the Balance: When to Avoid Gold Plating and When to Understand Client Needs Deeply

However, there is a significant difference between gold plating and genuinely understanding the client’s requirements to such an extent that you feel something more or different may be needed to align the client’s vision with the deliverable they requested you build.

In such cases, engage in a conversation with the client. They will appreciate your partnership all the more.

Gold plating is quite an intriguing phenomenon because, if the roles were reversed, we’d be crying out, “don’t do it; it’s scope creep!” If it’s not acceptable for the client to push for more work outside of the agreed-upon scope, why would it be okay for those delivering the work to do the same?

I’ll conclude with this thought: if you decide to gold plate, consider how that reflects on you and your team in the eyes of the client.

What do I mean? Well, if you give away work for free, you’re telling your client, “my time, resources, and expertise are not valuable,” thereby giving your client consent to take you for granted and treat you as a vendor rather than the valued partner you should be recognized as.

Just avoid gold plating – you and your team are better off without it.