What’s scope creep?

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Scope Creep blog photo

The term “scope creep” might conjure up images of spiders and other crawling insects, but it’s actually a real concept in software development. I introduced it in my article on “Tips for Building a Web Platform or Mobile App”, and now I’m going to expand on it to tell you why you need to be aware of it and how you can prevent it.

Scope creep occurs when the size of a project increases after it has started due to the improper management of requirement changes.


Ok – say you have a project that starts with a list of 10 things to build. That’s the scope of your project. As you go through the project, you realise that there are another 5 things that you want to build. If you decide to include them in your project, your scope has grown by 50% to 15 things. That’s scope creep.    

Why do you need to know about scope creep?

Scope creep is an easy trap to fall into. When you’re building a product from scratch, there’s only so much that you know at the beginning. As you start the design and build process, you learn more about your product, and you think of more things you want your product to do. You want it to be perfect, so of course, you need to include it in the initial version of your product. The new requirement is added to your project – then another, and another – and all of a sudden, it takes months longer to finish the build of your product and costs you more.

Your developers will love you! They get more money and you get the product that you want.

So why is this bad?!

Presumably, when you were planning to build your platform or app, you had a budget of some sort – the amount that you wanted to spend or could spend on development. Better still, you had an idea of the financials required to make your idea commercially viable (e.g. the numbers that you needed to hit to make money). If you fall into the scope creep trap, you might a) not have enough money to complete the building of your platform or app and b) your idea may no longer be commercially viable.

This notion of scope creep also ties into my article the other week about a minimal viable product (MVP). People often have good intentions and start with building an MVP – and then they get excited – a competitor has this feature that you just have to include, and there’s this really cool feature that you think your users will love. Your initial release gets bigger and bigger, and is no longer an MVP. Also remember, that 80% of features in most applications don’t get used! There’s a good bet that many of your unplanned changes won’t materially affect your product in a positive way.

What can you do to prevent scope creep?

There are two main ways that you can prevent scope creep from happening.

  1. Define your product properly upfront
  2. Manage change to your product scope appropriately

1. Define your product properly upfront

Scope grows when you realise that there’s something else that needs to be included in your project. So, to prevent this from happening, you need to have a better idea of what you want to build upfront. This involves having a very clear, and often detailed, view of what you want your product to do. Take the time to think through every process and every function that defines your product.  You want to make sure you’ve captured different scenarios that might occur, and the features you want your product to have. This will allow you to have a well-defined scope for your project.

The reality is that there’s going to be things that you miss – and that’s ok, because now you’re only going to miss a few things rather than lots of things. This is where the second method for dealing with scope creep comes in.

2. Manage change to your project scope appropriately

When you discover that there’s something else you need to add or change you to your product, then there’s a few things that you should do before you decide to actually build it:

1. Prioritise the change: How important is it really? Do you need it in the first version or can it be something that's added shortly after?  

2. Get your developers to estimate the size and impact: Understand how much it will cost you to make the change, and how it will affect the overall project schedule.

 3. Evaluate the impact to your financials and business model: Use the numbers to see if you can afford to make the change. Does it affect the commercial viability of your product? Will delays disrupt your launch strategy? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

If you do all of this and decide the change is worth it, then go ahead and do it. This doesn’t have to be an extensive, drawn-out process. The point is that you’ve made an educated decision about changing the scope of your project.

If you’re working under an agile methodology, recognise that your change may mean that something else doesn’t get done. This change may have a higher priority and cause another requirement to be pushed back. You’ve got to decide whether to extend your project to include the lower priority requirement or not.

Not all change is bad…

Despite all of this doom and gloom about scope creep, there are often very legitimate reasons for making changes to your project. The lesson here is that you don’t want to be caught unaware of what’s happening. It’s very easy to for a lot of small changes to accumulate and drive your costs up and delay your launch. So, before your start your project, be as sure of your can of what you want your product to do, and while you’re product is being developed, have a process in place so that you can make informed decisions about changes that you want to make to your product.

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