Beware the Creep That Threatens Your Project

What is Scope Creep?

Well, it’s not the guy in the next building with a telescope in his window—although that would be a great guess.

“Scope creep” is an uncontrolled increase in project scope—often minor, unrelated bits and pieces—and is one of the leading causes of project failure. Those bits and pieces add up over time. What’s worse, some of those bits and pieces cause problems and re-writes for requirements that are actually part of the legitimate, agreed-to scope of the project. You can see how that can get out-of-hand very quickly, generating increased costs and/or busting your schedule.

A project’s scope defines a container in which the work of the project will fit. The specifics of this container are agreed to among the project stakeholders and anything outside of that is considered “out-of-scope”. That is a very important step for the team to complete.

Think of a bottle as the container and water as the work to be done. The stakeholders have decided on a specific amount of water to put in the bottle and it all fits. There may be a little room remaining, but the amount of water and the size of the bottle were agreed upon. The scope is set.

You may not have noticed but as time passes, the faucet from which you filled the bottle has a dripping problem. Every drop adds to the water in the bottle—and you don’t really notice, until the bottle is overflowing with water. That is what scope creep looks like. The stakeholders didn’t want it, but you got it and it’s costing you more than you planned. (Incidentally, a leaky faucet will make your water bill increase unexpectedly and without warning, too.)

What causes scope creep?
There are many factors, but some common contributors are:

  • Inadequate or informal definition of requirements and/or scope
  • Inadequate (or non-existent) project planning
  • Adding “cool” features not requested, with little or no apparent value
  • Poor communications among project teams and stakeholders
  • Overly-cumbersome change process
  • Poor project progress tracking/oversight

Project teams are often so hungry to please their customers, they take it upon themselves to “add value” by adding features that weren’t requested. This technique, known as “gold plating,” often has the opposite effect, increasing costs and/or schedule with little or no increase in value to the customer. Check out’s article, Put Your Users First – Here’s How for helpful tips on how to stay focused on your customer’s needs at every step.

In the end, the problem with scope creep is its uncontrolled nature. In a controlled environment, changes can be vetted and understood. Perhaps trade-offs can be considered with other requirements or deliverables to stay within the confines of the container. Change is not necessarily a bad thing.

Are all changes considered “scope creep”?
No. As a project evolves, there are legitimate reasons to adjust the scope—adding or subtracting—based on business, financial, or other drivers. These changes are documented and reviewed through a formalized change process. The change process is important because it let’s everyone on the team know what is expected and why. By having this process, all project stakeholders become aware of changes, their impacts to other parts of the project, and their costs. It also gives decision-makers a basis on which to determine whether to move forward with a particular change.

Beware the Scope Creep
It’s often not “if”, but “when” scope creep happens to a project manager. The nature of the beast is that it sneaks-up on you before you know it. However, by employing some basic project management tools and techniques like defined scope, change management, and careful monitoring of schedules and costs, you can keep the “creep” away. For more tips on mitigating scope creep, check out this article Be Mindful of Scope Creep by Archana Sukumaran.

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