Project ManagementWhat is Scope Creep?

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What is Project Scope

Scope creep, also known as requirement creep, is a term used in project management that refers to multiple changes in a project’s scope, which results in uncontrolled growth and complication in a project. These changes, if left unchecked, can lead to a project missing deadlines, going over budget, or, in worst case scenarios, failing completely. In this project management tutorial, we discuss project scopes and how to avoid scope creep taking over a project, especially in a software development environment.

Read: Project Management Tools and Software for Developers

What is Project Scope?

At the beginning of a project, the project manager will work with developers, team members, and key stakeholders to define a project’s scope. This definition lays out the goals of the project, the roles and responsibilities each team member will undertake during the course of the project, any resources that will be required, meeting cadences and types, key metrics, and any potential risks or roadblocks that may occur along the way.

Once the work begins, changes will occur within the original project scope document. This is normal, as there are always unforeseen circumstances that will occur. Changes in market conditions, technology, and the needs of the client can be hard to account for and will always be a variable that is hard to define. It is the role of the project manager to help predict these changes to the best of their ability and then mitigate the effect they will have on the overall project as they pop up.

Part of that mitigation involves communicating and collaborating with team members and stakeholders to ensure the tasks associated with the continual changes do not get overlooked or become so overwhelming that it creates roadblocks or prevents the completion of the project.

Changes that affect project scope occur once the project’s work begins. They can become a problem when there are too many of them and if the project’s objectives are not clear and communicated properly to the team. Project objectives that are vaguely defined, undergo frequent changes, or expand at any point and surpass the mutually agreed-upon scope all lead to scope creep.

Understanding the intricacies of scope creep – the whys and hows – is vital for a project manager to understand as, if not properly handled, scope creep can lead to cost overflows, delays, and even culminate in the failure of the project.

You can learn more about project scope and tips for creating one in our tutorial: Tips for Defining Project Scope.

What Causes Scope Creep?

Scope creep is a common challenge in project management, often triggered by a myriad of interconnected factors. It can stealthily manifest and expand when the objectives and goals of a project are not explicitly laid out or are inadequately communicated. This ambiguity creates a gray area that paves the way for extraneous tasks to slip into the project, almost imperceptibly at first, diluting the project’s focus and ultimately leading to an overinflated project scope.

For instance, a project might initially aim to develop a website for a client. However, due to poorly described objectives, the client may start to request additional features such as e-commerce capabilities, user account creation, or a built-in blog. These additions may seem small at first, but they can vastly expand the project’s scope, potentially leading to higher costs, increased timelines, and overworked resources.

Probably the most common cause of scope creep is the lack of proper documentation. As touched upon above, detailed, structured documentation should serve as the backbone of any project, outlining the initial objectives, project timelines, stakeholder roles and responsibilities, and agreed-upon deliverables. The project scope documentation is a point of reference that keeps the project aligned with its initial vision.

Without thorough, well-planned documentation, the project’s details can become a matter of individual interpretation, which leads to confusion or misunderstandings among the team. It is common for stakeholders to forget specific elements or agreements when documentation is inadequate. This, in turn, results in tasks being added or changed without a full understanding of the impact on the project, causing an unintended expansion of the project’s scope.

Poor communication among stakeholders can also significantly contribute to scope creep. During the project lifecycle, effective communication is the glue that binds the team’s efforts towards the common objective. The project scope, its timelines, and responsibilities have to be communicated clearly and revisited on a consistent basis to all stakeholders in order to prevent deviation.

Sporadic communication that is ambiguous or unclear can lead to stakeholders developing differing perceptions of the project’s goals, deliverables, or progress. This can cause stakeholders to propose or implement changes that they view as beneficial, but that can actually deviate from the original project scope.

One example of this is where a stakeholder suggests adding a new feature to a software development project, making the assumption that it is a minor addition. Without comprehensive understanding or effective communication of how this addition impacts the overall project’s timeline, resources, and cost, however, the change could lead to substantial scope creep and risks.

Scope creep may seem innocuous at the onset, but it can have extensive and long-lasting impacts on a project and the company as a whole. These ramifications can range from financial and resource allocation consequences, to issues with team morale and client relationships.

One of the most immediate and visible impacts of scope creep is its effect on a project’s budget. As a project’s scope expands, the associated tasks and requirements grow as well. These additional tasks and requirements equate to more resources, such as materials, software, or personnel, all of which increase costs. For instance, in a software development project, adding new features not originally defined in the project scope can result in extra coding hours, the need for additional developer tools, and maybe even a need to hire more developers or consultants for contract work to complete these new objectives. Such unforeseen costs can quickly balloon the budget beyond its initial allotment, leading to financial strain on the company.

In addition, scope creep can wreak havoc on project timelines. The more new tasks that creep into the project, the more the initial schedule becomes stretched, causing delays. These delays can have a “domino effect”, pushing back other dependent tasks and causing the entire project to overrun its deadline. As an example, in a construction project, adding a new building wing not only increases the construction time, but may also delay subsequent tasks, such as interior design or landscaping. This type of disruption can result in a late delivery, which tarnishes the organization’s reputation and client relationships.

Finally, the impact of scope creep is not confined to just tangible aspects like budget or timelines, but also significantly affects human resources. As the project scope grows larger, the workload on the project team increases, often without an increase in resources or timeline. This sudden (and unanticipated) influx of work can lead to extra stress and the potential for burnout, as team members scramble to meet the new demands of the project. This can erode the team’s morale over time, reduce productivity, and even lead to higher employee turnover, especially if it becomes a trend from project to project.

How to Prevent Scope Creep

Preventing scope creep starts with creating a clear, detailed project scope that outlines specific deliverables, timelines, roles and responsibilities, budgets, required resources, meeting cadences, and risks. Fostering effective communication and collaboration among stakeholders and team members is crucial to ensure everyone understands the defined project scope and is on the same page.

Change management strategies also play a pivotal role in preventing scope creep. Project managers should create a formal process for assessing, approving, or rejecting proposed changes to the project scope.

We have a great tutorial discussing methods on How to Prevent Scope Creep.

How to Manage Scope Creep

If scope creep occurs, not all is lost, so long as the project manager takes steps to control it effectively. One step you can take is to reassess the project’s priorities and objectives and remove any tasks that are not vital to the project’s goal. You may also need to renegotiate timelines, deadlines, and budgets based on the expanded project scope.

When managing scope creep, it is important to communicate any changes with all stakeholders and team members to ensure everyone understands the implications of the updated scope on timelines, costs, expectations, and resources.

Final Thoughts on Scope Creep

For project managers, understanding and managing scope creep is crucial to the success of any project. In this project management tutorial, we discussed some tactics PMs can implement to prevent unnecessary expansion of the project scope and, should scope creep enter the picture, manage any changes effectively. Doing so will help lead to more successful project and software development outcomes.

Now that you have a better understanding of what scope creep is, we recommend checking out our article on Tips for Successful Project Kickoff Meetings. In addition, if you encounter issues with stakeholders or team members, our guide, Tips for Managing Stakeholder Conflicts, can give you strategies for resolving problems.

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