Project Management

Stop scope creep before it starts

Is scope creep sucking the life out of your projects? Don't let it get the better of you. Learn how scope creep starts and what you can do to prevent it.


By Shelley Doll

Scope creep is the expansion of a project beyond its original objectives. If you haven’t experienced it yet, it is just a matter of time because nearly every IT project falls victim to it. In “Seven steps for avoiding scope creep,” we looked at some ways to try to manage this phenomenon. Now it’s time to look at four sources of scope creep and discuss ways you can counter their negative influence on your projects.

Scope creep sources
Once the project is under way, how do you keep it on track? First, you must understand what to watch out for and where scope creep can originate. The following are four major sources of scope creep:
  • Enhancement requests from project drivers
  • Undiscovered task requirements
  • Developer-included enhancements
  • Market changes

Each of these elements will definitely affect your development effort over the course of a project, but they can all be controlled to varying extents.

From the top
When you’re working on a project, the originating source will sometimes change its vision based on work that's been completed. This is especially prevalent when project drivers are nontechnical or inexperienced. Whether the excitement of achieving early milestones spawns a flood of new inspiration or delivered functionality reminds the visionaries of things they intended to imply early on, the act of meeting requirements will dredge up new ones.

You can deploy a number of precautionary measures to counterbalance these little (or not-so-little) additions.
  • Use your Change Order forms. Having a clear definition of what is being asked gives you the power to control it. Perform a brief analysis of each order, including details about duration and associated costs, timeline effects, and technology repercussions. Then, give the request a rating based on your priorities and the level of importance of the changes. Propose an appropriate deployment schedule, if any, and return the analysis to the project drivers for signed approval. Only those changes that are truly important will be approved.
  • Document all work before and after it’s performed to ensure that hallway conversation doesn’t make its way directly into your source. When you’ve had such a conversation, refer to the first point above.
  • Keep management involved from a distance by having them approve phase requirements and review change order analyses and by generally flooding them with information. Schedule product reviews weekly or at the end of a minor milestone to have them sign off on completed work. By limiting exposure to the product under way, change requests will be less prevalent.
  • If at all possible, limit the project drivers’ access to developers. In a casual environment (i.e., one lacking rigid structure or procedural controls), it’s easy for changes to slip past you without notice until it’s too late. In larger scenarios, management may try to go around you if they feel burdened by Change Orders. If this happens, code silos get created and features go undocumented. Your project budget and timeline will slip away from you, and you won’t even know how it happened.

From the plan
Another potential source of scope creep is an inadequately planned project. This happens with any large project. Whether you forgot to include the cost of rack mounts in your budget or you left out some portion of code that a requirement is dependent on, the amount of time you have for project planning is never enough. But over time, by realistically understanding your skills and the skills of your developers, you should be able to gauge your chance of error and include additional room for it in your schedule up front. When you discover an oversight, complete a Change Order form yourself, perform an analysis, and review it with the project drivers. Then, schedule the changes (even if done posthaste) and update all relevant documentation materials. Those with an investment in your project will appreciate your professionalism.

From the ranks
One of the most hard-to-identify sources of scope creep comes from the developers themselves. Because the developers are usually more proficient in the code they are writing than their project manager, changes and enhancements can be made and not discovered until the phase has entered quality assurance. These changes may be previously undiscovered dependencies and bug fixes that go unreported but that eat up several hours of time, or they could simply be your local guru running amok, trying to make the product live up to his or her standards. Also, as mentioned above, project drivers may approach developers directly, diverting them from their current task to perform something seemingly more important—like keeping their job.

How do you handle this? Talk to your developers. Perform “management-by-walking-around.” Have weekly update meetings and, most importantly, impress upon your staff the importance of viewing the project as a completed product and of commenting their code. Large projects should use versioning control software—and make sure people do use it; some of the best developers are true slackers when it comes to code management. Deploy bug-tracking software to ensure that bugs get reported and scheduled and not just fixed on the fly. In addition (and your developers will love you for this), offer documentation tools that strip comments from their code. Your developers are at the heart of your project; keeping a close eye on procedures can make your team more efficient and less stressed.

From the market
The final major contributing factor to scope creep is your software market. While the adage “release early and often” may sound good, in the long run, the logistics of this approach can hinder your entire development effort. When the market changes, it’s the project manager who must dictate how to proceed. Stay on top of trends during production and periodically review their potential impact on the project with your drivers. Based on your priorities, you may have to barrel through, but staying in tune with your market and maintaining some flexibility in your project plan can keep you ahead of the game. Don’t waffle on decisions based on market trends. Do your research, make a determination, and stick with it. Whether you decide to carry on, migrate later, or redirect your efforts, a solid decision is the best thing for your timeline.

Maybe a project has already begun to slip away from you. But through diplomacy, determination, resourcefulness, and documentation, documentation, documentation, you can transform yourself from a victim of scope creep into a professional that turned the project into a success.

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