What Is a Scope Creep?

What Is a Scope Creep?

If you are a project manager and don’t know what a scope creep is, you are either new to the gig - or just extremely lucky. But don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.

The scope creep is an uncontrollable expansion of project goals that were not previously agreed upon. It usually starts off small, but ends up in being more than you, your team, timeframe, and budget can handle.

In practice, the scope creep would be something like this: the project is running smoothly: deadlines are on track, the budget is in check, and the team is on the same page. Suddenly, a stakeholder insists that the original project scope has to be altered and expanded. The requests could vary from “develop an extra feature (or two)” and “change app specifications”, to “take what you’ve already created and refurbished it, so it can be used for a different purpose”.

Additional unforeseen requests will impact realization: team, deadlines, and budget were all selected/determined according to project scope. All changes (big and small) will ultimately result in the final product being similar, but by no means the same as it was initially agreed upon. Also, there is a high possibility of team dissatisfaction, delays, and budget breach - all practical consequences of the scope creep.

Keep in mind, however, that there are two types of scope changes: controlled ones which result in documented changes to project specifications, and uncontrolled ones which we all know as the scope creep.

Why does a scope creep cause a delay on a project?

goldMost of the time, scope creep happens because of uncertainty: lack of details, weak leadership, too many different stakeholder opinions, and even some late feedback.

Vague project scope - Leaving something to chance? Counting on ironing out the details sometime down the road? You shouldn’t... Unclear project scope is the most common reason for scope creep “emergence”, which is what makes a detailed project initiation document paramount. Go through and tweak project scope again and again. Once you reach the point where all the questions are answered, you are ready to move on.

Weak leadership - If the project manager proves to be a pushover, client’s requests will pile up. With no one to stop them (or just say NO), product requirements will pile up until the scope creep becomes “something you should learn to live with”.

Overpromising - Ignorance or arrogance - take a pick. Either the project manager has underestimated the complexity of the project (due to inexperience or incompetence), or they are overconfident in the team's ability that they set unrealistic deadlines which simply can not be met. Whatever the cause, you will gain nothing by overpromising. What’s more, it will most likely cost you money, time and reputation.

Communication bypass - Client doesn’t like you (or the project manager). But they do like a member of your team (for whatever the reason). So they decide they want to talk to the team member only, leaving you out of the loop in the process. Unchecked communication is a breeding ground for indecent proposals, shady agreements, and ever-expanding client requests that one or more members of the team are not prepared to handle.

Confronting opinions - Too many different influential stakeholder opinions usually result in one of two scenarios:

  • “Find the middle ground” order - believe it or not, this is a better option. It relies on compromise, and none of the confronting parties is really happy with it. The problem occurs, however, when you and your team have to reevaluate the project and figure out what the middle ground is;
  • “Make everyone happy” order - Scope creep personified. Essentially, you will have to create the product with all the bells and whistles and then some. Not only will this order increase time and money needed to wrap things up, but will result in an unnecessarily complex product which goes well beyond the initial project scope.

Bottom line is: it is much simpler (as well as cost-effective) to argue until all stakeholders agree than to work double time to satisfy everyone's ego.

11th-hour feedback - Keeping your client in the dark is not a good idea. And while status reports are one way of getting them involved, enabling them all-access to the project will ensure you get timely feedback. However, there WILL be times when client feedback is WAY overdue (for whatever the reason), and during those times you can bet that they will request some radical changes. Hello, scope creep.

Gold plating - The intentional addition of extra features or functions that were not included in the original project scope. There are several reasons why project managers or team members opt for gold plating:

  • Project manager wants to go the extra mile for the client or upper management;
  • A team member wants to show off or prove their ability;
  • Finally, as a diversion tactic from another, faulty product feature.

Even though it is done with the best intentions in mind and with no extra cost to the client, gold plating can backfire heavily when the scope creep is in question. It increases input cost, increases the risk and elevates client expectations, and be sure that the next client will want the same treatment the previous one had - with no extra cost.

Before moving on to the solution

Scope creep is like a watching a frisbee fly, and wondering why is it getting bigger - until it hits you in the face. Hurts, doesn’t it? Yeah, thought so… If you already see it coming, catch it! You might miss it in the first few tries, but over time you will get good at it. Once you perfect your “catch” game, scope creep will become a nothing more than the harmless nuisance.