“Since we’re already doing this…why don’t we also add this?”
It sounds like an innocent question. Harmless, really.
And this is coming from one of your most talented developers who seems to have a real knack for your product and customer needs.
It could even be a great idea…so why not?
What is Scope Creep?
Let’s talk about scope and scope creep before we discuss the dangers of scope creep.
Scope is what the product can do and the amount of work (scope of work) to produce it.
Scope creep happens when you add onto that, increasing both the amount of time required and what the product can do.
Often, this happens without leadership or the client knowing what you’re doing. It sounds like a good idea and it very well could be, but it wasn’t properly vetted or checked out before being tacked on to the work already in progress.
The very official Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide says that scope creep is “when the scope is expanded in an uncontrolled manner.”
If you’re a project manager, managing scope creep is your job. If you’re the CEO, you don’t want to hear about one great product idea for a client, only to realize it gets changed later on.
At ClickUp, dealing with scope creep has become the main driving force behind all of our product-related decisions.
The hard part of scope creep is dealing with changes versus increasing the scope. Sometimes they sound the same, but in fact, it’s different. It’s similar, but not the same. Distinguishing between the two is one of the top decisions that project managers and product managers have to make.
Like Steve Jobs liked to say (or at least said once): “I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
Scope creep is all about saying no to preserve the initial vision of innovation. With that being said, there’s a balance between listening to users’ opinions (whom in many ways know your product better than you) and staying true to the initial concept.
At ClickUp, we embrace change and innovation, but we embrace our original foundation. We can’t ever become a bloated mess like JIRA, but we also don’t want to remain an unusably simple product like Todoist. This balance is something we are constantly weighing in different directions as we drive our product forward.
For us, the best test of them all is, “would we use this feature ourselves?” If we can answer “yes” to that question, then likely it’s a feature we want to to build.
When scope creep does happen, it often means cost overruns and delays to the final product. But even worse – you could end up with a product that isn’t simple enough to use. Arguably worst of all, you could build a product that has unintended functionality, which in turn, guides your users into using your product in a different manner. You literally risk creating an entirely different product if you allow scope creep to take hold of your product team.
How Scope Creep Happens
It often happens with a great idea, like in the example we started with. The team or client has well-meaning intentions and their idea may even work. But it’s not part of the plan and the team moves forward.
How does this happen?
1. You Don’t Feel Comfortable Saying “No”
The inability to say “no” or “wait” to a great idea is probably the top reason why scope creep happens. This could be from a client, your leadership team or your talented team members. And often saying “no” takes a more delicate and gentle response. You could affirm the idea but then ask to wait on it or say that you’ll investigate that for the next feature release. There are multiple ways to say “no.” 🙂
2. Colleagues Make Promises
If your team has a liaison like an account manager, they may often be on calls or communicate with clients without the product managers, business analysts or scrum masters. Oftentimes the client will make a reasonable-sounding request…without knowing all the facts. And many times in sales-driven organizations, the account manager will say yes to the deliverable and is supported over the project team. This wreaks havoc on your carefully orchestrated project plan. That’s not a change, it’s scope creep.
3. Bad Specs From The Start
You know what maybe your lead software developer is absolutely right. That feature is a terrific idea. And it should’ve been incorporated into your original requirements and planning. Uh-oh.
That’s on you and your product managers. Still, it’s probably good to stay the course, fully spec out that idea, see what it would take to make it happen and initiate a new sprint or plan. That’s one of the benefits of agile project management, keeping your eye on the goal line in the short term while pivoting towards new ideas fairly quickly.
4. You Extend Deadlines
If you extend deadlines for every change request or new idea, you’ll never get the project done. And after you do it once, your client will see an opening and pounce. Again and again.
5. The vocal minority wins
Many times the users you hear most are simply just that – they are the vocal users. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the majority. In many cases, the majority is the happy group of users that don’t voice concerns because they are using the product the way it was meant to be–and like it. Always be extremely careful of letting the vocal minority disguise themselves as the majority.
7 Steps to Preventing Scope Creep
1. Have a Great Project Plan
Your project plan will not only detail your project requirements, schedule and how it gets there, but it should also mention how change requests will be addressed. These could even detail which features could be improved upon and which ones absolutely cannot be. This will eliminate many of the “why don’t we try this?”-type questions. If something does need to be changed, identify the process and then actually use the process if needed when changes are requested.
2. Survey ALL of your users and stakeholders
To prevent having the vocal minority win in new product features and ideas, simply send a survey (we use Typeform) to all of your users (or your most active users). This will give you a true idea of whether you are letting internal voices influence you too much or if the change is actually a welcomed idea by the majority.
3. Keep Monitoring the Work
One of the top project management skills is to monitor the work and know when to step in. This is important to avoiding scope creep. If you keep an eye on the work (without micromanaging), you’ll identify trouble spots before they’re built beyond the scope or outside of the project plan.
4. Compare Your Actual Time with Your Estimated Time
How long did you estimate a task or project would take? Check that against the work that you’ve made already. If they don’t match up, are there other aspects of the project that are being completed instead? Is something unnecessary to the project scope being worked on? These are areas where scope creep could be occurring unintentionally, especially if one of your workers is going solo on a certain feature or item.
5. Stay In Regular Contact with the Stakeholders
This may seem contrary to what was mentioned above, about clients urging your team to expand the scope of the project. But the reverse could also happen, too–your team members are not focused on the right areas and are developing or working on things beyond the agreed upon scope. Ensure that you’re aligned with the clients’ priorities (or your internal stakeholders). This will keep you away from all-encompassing projects.
6. Remember Your Project Goals
Projects have a defined start and end date. That’s what makes them projects rather than just long slogs. It also gives your team clear goals to aim for. Keep those goals top of mind when you’re working with your team. Show them the goal line and how close you are. Emphasize that scope creep will extend that timeline and not give the team a clear break that they were looking for. Having the end in sight is a key motivator for teams, and can help you avoid scope creep.
7. Avoid Gold Plating
Wouldn’t it be nice if you gave the client something extra? To go above and beyond, right?
It’s a noble sentiment, really it is. But customer success is different than client contracting. Sometimes that extra little bit isn’t worth the time, effort or budget cost. Your developer may want to impress the client, but who knows if the client wants it or if it would even help? Following tip #5 will help avoid this as well.
It’s called scope creep for a reason. It can happen without you even realizing what’s going on.
Scope creep management isn’t just something you do one time on a project–it’s a constant action that you’ve always got to be aware of.
It means regular review and involves excellent team communication. It’s creating the project plan and following it once you make it. It’s doing what you say you’ll do. Those values will help you maintain control even when you want to say “yes” to every great idea.
As the CEO of ClickUp, I’m the one who is utterly aware of scope creep the most. I, along with the product team, have hundreds of ideas on a weekly basis. These come from using the product myself as well as feedback from our product board. It’s up to me, the product and engineering teams to drown out the noise and focus on the long-term viability and sustainability of creating a mass market product that can be used by a wide range of niches. We may sometimes be guilty of scope creep ourselves, but if you really truly care about your product, who isn’t?