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How to avoid scope creep

When it comes to building out a project, putting a plan in place is paramount to its success. One of the biggest challenges to any plan is scope creep, which happens when the scope of the project expands beyond its originally established boundaries.

Abbey Charles
Abbey Charles
· 5 min read
How to avoid scope creep | Picture of a person in a white button-up shirt using a pair of biniculars.

Mostafa Meraji | Unsplash

Whether this is your first big undertaking as a manager, or you’re just looking for a little refresher on how to narrow the scope of your project, this is the perfect place to start. Let’s begin by taking a look at what scope creep truly entails. 

What is scope creep?

Scope creep refers to any unapproved or uncontrolled changes that gradually expand the scope of your project. It can happen at any stage in the project, and usually happens when you start with requirements that aren’t clearly defined or documented. When that’s the case, you have stakeholders chiming in, adding new features, functions, and requirements to the project. It’s not always an intentional choice those stakeholders are making, rather a late-in-the-game realization that something was missed earlier on in the planning phases. 

Why is scope creep so detrimental?

At its core, scope creep is detrimental to projects, because it causes delays, increases costs, and reduces the quality of the end product. It extends timelines, requires additional resources that weren’t planned for, and stretches teams thin.

Production delays

This one is fairly obvious, but is also the most important factor in getting your scope creep under control. As new requirements get added, the timeline has to extend to accommodate them. This is especially problematic if you’re a small startup where resources and time can be extremely limited. 

Increasing costs

Delays are costly in and of themselves, but growing the scope of your project also requires additional resources. And while you can always bring in someone on a fractional basis to cover some of the work, that will mean more money needs to find its way into your budget. And if you’re already working against a tight budget, this can be problematic.

Reduction in quality

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were buried in work and thought to yourself “I can do it all, but I can’t do it all well.”? Your personal scope got creeped on, and your work suffered for it. The same thing happens in projects. When new features get added, the team has to take that time from somewhere else, like writing tests or integrating third-party APIs. This is when bugs and glitches get released in the final product, and that’s not a great look for something your team has worked hard on.

How to avoid scope creep

While some scope creep is inevitable (seriously…build at least a little leeway into your project for this), there are a few things you can do to mitigate its effects.

Clearly define the scope of the project

As my mother was always fond of saying: proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Love for alliteration aside, it’s a great reminder that spending some time doing proper planning up front can save you performance issues in the end. The scope of the project (requirements, functions, timelines, etc.) should all be shared with your stakeholders at the very beginning. This not only level-sets expectations, but also allows for them to request changes, additions, and updates to the project before your team dives in. Your stakeholders should have a clear understanding of what’s expected, which makes it easier to identify when future scope changes are requested.

Use a change control process

Change is inevitable, but it can also be controlled. Define a process for requesting changes, including how the request is made, the process of approving it, and how the changes should be implemented. Any changes that are requested should be evaluated against the original goals and objectives of the project to determine how necessary the change is. And if it’s an approved change, the effects on the timeline and budget should be clearly communicated to the stakeholders.

Monitor the scope

In traditional development environments, where teams are running sprints, it’s easy to see where and when things are being held up or changes are being made. If your team is small and agile, this may be harder to keep track of without putting intention into it. Regularly review the progress of the project against your original timeline to determine if things are still on track. Any changes need to documented and evaluated against the original plan, and anything that goes through the previous step should be reflected in an updated timeline that’s available to everyone.

Engage stakeholders early and often

Obviously, you want to involve stakeholders from the beginning, ensuring that the project meets their needs. But it’s a big mistake to only check in with them when a problem arises. I’ve been an unfortunate party to a team that didn’t involve stakeholders past the initial discovery phase, which resulted in the developers working for months on building out a new set of features, only to discover upon “completion” that the C-suite hated every bit of it. That heartache and disappointment was palpable, and could have been avoided by doing regular check-ins to ensure everyone was on the same page. Don’t make that mistake.

Manage expectations

In theory, a well-defined project scope should also help you to manage expectations with stakeholders as to what will be accomplished, and in what kind of timeline that will happen. It’s also important to manage expectations when changes to the plan occur, let those stakeholders think that something they view as a “simple” change is actually an extra 60 hours of manpower. If the changes are necessary, the stakeholders should understand what it takes to get them.

Wrapping up

Delivering a product on time, on budget, and with all the bells and whistles you want is an extremely rewarding experience. But it takes discipline to get there, and that starts with your project plan. Kicking things off with all involved parties understanding what the outcome will be and when expected milestones will be hit will keep your team on track, ultimately ending with a product everyone is proud to have been a part of. 

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