In this episode, you’ll find out about the importance of guarding against scope creep and tools to help stop scope creep.

Dave Saboe is the host of the Mastering Business Analysis podcast.  He has two decades of experience as a Business Analyst and has experienced the negative impact scope creep can have on projects.  His scope creep alarm goes off whenever someone says “could you just . . . ” or “while we’re in there, we might as well . . . “


Show Notes

Scope creep isn’t just the nickname of that weird guy with chronic bad breath down the hall. It also refers to uncontrolled changes or the continuous growth in a project’s scope. Often, this addition to scope comes without corresponding changes to the budget, resources, and schedule. Scope creep is also known as requirements creep and can occur when the project scope is poorly defined and as a result, requirements are added that do not align with the objective of the project. By “scope of the project”, we’re referring to the boundaries of the project, problem, or intent. Scope helps define the project’s parameters.


Fight scope creep daily

Certainly, there are requirements changes that don’t fall into the category of scope creep. If a requirement was previously missed and yet is needed to achieve the objective of the initiative, that is not scope creep. Similarly, a change of detail such as needing a field to appear on the first screen of an application rather than the last page is not scope creep.

Scope creep can lead to gold plating, which is the practice of going beyond the project scope in the belief that you are adding value. However, these additions to scope may not be needed by the customer and certainly don’t add sufficient value to make up for the increased time and cost.

Scope creep is consistently listed as one of the top three reasons for project failure. Depending on which study you read, failed or challenged projects (those that exceed budget or time constraints) account for between 34% and 75% of all projects. So one to two thirds of projects outright fail or exceed constraints, and scope creep is a major contributing factor.

The common perception with some stakeholders is that it’s cheaper to make additional changes while you’re making changes to the system. Often that’s true. By taking advantage of bundling similar tasks together, you achieve certain cost and time savings. However, there’s also an opportunity cost that is frequently not considered in these decisions. Taking time and resources away from the main objective of your project leads to delays and increased cost. The benefit of the additional scope may not sufficiently support the cost associated with the lost time and resource constraints.

There are also downstream impacts to consider. The later in the project lifecycle you add scope, the more costly it is to implement. Having to rework the code, testing (including additional regression testing), the time to perform proper change control procedures, and related activities all result in delays and increased cost. You may lose your first mover advantage or violate regulations if timing is critical to your project.


Not all scope creep is created equal

Scope creep is not always negative, depending on the situation. New features and functionality can give your product the edge over the competition if you implement it early enough. It may be the case that while the additional scope does not exactly align to your project’s objectives, it is sufficiently important to add this scope to your project to gain an advantage.


No worries . . . We’re Agile!

While it’s true that changing requirements have less of an impact with Agile and other iterative delivery methods, scope creep still sneaks into those projects and pushes out your backlog, leading to delays in delivering high priority intent. Agile allows you and your team to focus on the next priority. When scope that is not aligned to your project or objective is added to your backlog, there must be proper prioritization and a trade-off with something in your backlog that is properly aligned. Again, there’s an opportunity cost and the potential for delays to your shippable product and increased budget requirements. You must educate your team on the trade-offs and opportunity costs associated with adding scope.


The Five Main Causes of Scope Creep

  1. Poorly defined scope and objectives
  2. Miscommunication or misunderstandings about the project intent and vision
  3. Poorly defined, ambiguous requirements
  4. Lack of a proper change control process
  5. Weak project management and negotiation skills


Solutions to Scope Creep

1. Make sure that you understand the project vision, goals, and objectives. Share the project intent and vision with your team, document the objectives and scope statement to clarity the boundaries of your project, and establish key metrics to evaluate the project’s success. Ensuring the team and stakeholders understand the goals and intent and establishing key metrics will allow you to tie back requests for additions to scope and have informed discussions as to whether or not that additional scope aligns to the project goals.

2. Understand priorities. You must prioritize and document the priority of each requirement. In addition, you should understand priorities at a project level. What is most important to your sponsor and customers? Is the highest priority time to market, cost, or inclusion of all scope? Indicate the project priorities to understand that which is most important. Prioritization will allow you to facilitate trade-off discussions when new scope is added.

3. Create clear, high quality requirements. Your requirements should be clear, unambiguous, and testable. Include diagrams and define any terms used. If possible, include criteria for success. This will allow little room for interpretation of the requirements. Remember that if something can be interpreted in different ways, it will inevitably be interpreted the wrong way. Also, involve end users early. If you fail to include end users, you may find that you build a process or system that does not meet the needs of the end users.

4. Use tools to guard against scope creep. The following tools can be invaluable in guarding against scope creep:

  • Traceability Matrix: Traceability allows you to trace every requirement back to higher-level intent. This ensures that any scope added can easily be traced back to an objective, vision, or success metric. This tool will help you validate if the scope should be added. If it cannot be traced back to an objective or success metric, the addition is likely out of scope.
  • Change control: A defined change control process will help you establish credibility when resisting additions to scope. For each change, you perform a cost-benefit analysis and document the reason for the change as well as the consequence of not making the change. You also make note of the impacts of the change such as extensions of the delivery date, additional resources, or budget changes. The change request must be agreed to by the team, sponsor, and budget owner. This allows you to assess the impact and benefits of making a change before implementing it.
  • Context diagram: A context diagram is a simple visualization of the system and high-level processes that allows you to identify scope boundaries. It can be shared with your project team to ensure a common understanding of the scope of your effort.


Context Diagram Example

Context diagram. Source: Wikipedia.

With these tools and techniques, we can act as guardians against scope creep.


What’s Your Take?
Do you have any tips for stopping scope creep? What has and has not worked for you?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Links mentioned in this episode

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