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scope creep

What is scope creep?

Scope creep in project management is the gradual expansion of functions or adding features, functions or other deliverables beyond a project's original parameters. It includes enhancements introduced during the project's development phase, rather than the earlier project planning and design phase.

These changes, however well-intentioned, threaten to impact a project negatively in several ways, including the following:

  • Increased project costs. Additional and unbudgeted work leads to cost overruns.
  • Extended project duration. Incorporating new features inevitably means more time for development and testing, resulting in delayed delivery of a completed project.
  • Reduced quality. Incorporating new requests or unplanned work without adjusting the project's timeline likely compromises the final product's quality, frustrating stakeholders.

Scope creep manifests slowly over time, which is why it is easy to miss the growing risk. It can be compared to the metaphorical frogs: One is thrown directly into boiling water. It's scalded and jumps to safety. The other sits in tepid water slowly brought to a boil, unaware of its peril until it's too late.

Causes of scope creep

Improper project management precedes and abets scope creep, a mix of internal and external influences that impede a project.

Common causes of scope creep include the following:

  • Poor initial outline. If the project's needs and requirements are neither clearly defined nor understood by all stakeholders at its outset, then scope creep follows as the project's outline is modified.
  • Listless governance. Projects lacking steady, insightful leadership become more susceptible to scope creep. Clear, regular communication -- within and between the team and stakeholders -- is also essential. Without it, cohesion and effectiveness are compromised, as is the project.
  • Changing priorities. Priorities can change frequently within an organization, or perhaps external forces conspire to change the project's original scope.
  • Gold plating. This term refers to a project team's well-intentioned tendency to add features or enhancements beyond original specifications without realizing their impact.
  • Substandard change control processes. Any project inevitably changes from its initial design. However, adequate controls manage those changes. Without those controls, scope creep takes root.
  • Outside influences. Regrettably, any project faces the whims of internal and external forces, from stakeholders uninvolved in the design to unpredictable market forces. Both can impact project scope.
  • Technological advancements. New technologies regularly emerge, rippling first through their industry and then beyond. The best example is generative AI and its impact, particularly on customer relations and marketing. The sudden arrival of ChatGPT threw many customer interaction projects into chaos if not outright derailed them.

How to identify project scope creep

It is possible to recognize and stop scope creep, but it requires hands-on project management and monitoring at every step and in every way.

Military leaders have a saying: "No plan survives contact with the enemy." In this case, the enemy is the initial scope and timeline of the project. In other words, project leaders should plan and prepare, of course, but beware. Unforeseen elements are likely to pop up throughout the project, including the following:

  • Unplanned design changes. It's inevitable. Just when consensus is reached on project requirements, someone somewhere along the line makes changes. Swift resolutions help avoid scope creep.
  • Poor documentation. Incomplete, inconsistent project documentation, including improperly filed project charters, requirements documents or project plans, indicates scope creep.
  • Turnover. Promotions, resignations, layoffs or other separation from the company affect staffing levels of any active project and, in turn, how and when it's completed.
  • Nagging issues. Recurring issues lead to scope creep because of extra time spent addressing unresolved concerns.
  • Personnel conflicts. People management requires navigating disagreements between team members, as well as reacting to management interference. Conflicts slow progress and, left unanswered, grow scope creep.
  • Stakeholder feedback. On the one hand, stakeholders can bring fresh eyes to any project, catching what others miss. On the other hand, they often demand more features, regardless of the time involved, and thereby instigate scope creep.
  • Missed deadlines or budget overruns. Unforeseen budget overruns and missed milestones require immediate attention. They signal well-established scope creep.

How to prevent scope creep

Scope creep is generally noticed after it has become a significant issue. Careful project observation and regular monitoring thwart potential creep. The following actions in battling scope creep should be considered:

  • Empower the project manager. Trusting the project leader, who was experienced enough to be put in charge, is essential. Second-guessing the project manager invites failure because it has a rippling, weakening effect on the manager's suddenly uncertain team.
  • Set realistic expectations. This includes communicating the project's scope, timeline, key milestones and challenges clearly from its inception, as well as updating all interested parties regularly throughout the project.
  • Document everything. Thorough documentation is required for all assignments, expectations, changes and progress updates throughout the project's lifecycle.
  • Prioritize requirements. Project teams should focus first on completing high-value project objectives and save the less critical features for later in the project.
  • Monitor progress and provide regular updates. No news is not good news. The team should be updated, even if all is in order. It is helpful to encourage team members and stakeholders to voice concerns or question scope changes before escalating.
  • Manage stakeholder expectations. This involves continuously engaging with stakeholders to address any concerns or requests for changes. Reviewing and validating project requirements regularly ensures they align with stakeholders' needs.

Examples of scope creep

As mentioned, scope creep features internal and external forces that slow a project, typically due to mismanagement. The following are types of scope creep:

  • Feature creep. Additional features or functions are requested in a software project after the initial design phase and its original development.
  • Technology creep. When changes are made in the technology or platform requirements, significant modifications often follow. At worst, a complete project restart is necessary.
  • Performance creep. Requests for performance improvements -- faster load times or an increased number of users -- overwhelm the initially defined resources, which require enhancements to keep pace with the requests.
  • Design changes. When an application design is changed mid-process, whatever the reason, it leads to significant revision or even a complete restart.
  • Regulatory compliance. Regulators constantly impose changes and new regulations. If a regulation alters the functionality of a project's application in mid-development, it's the project manager's responsibility to ensure regulatory compliance.
  • Target audience changes. For various reasons, an application developed with one group in mind might require alteration to its functionality as priorities or target audience change mid-project.
This was last updated in June 2024

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