Tech employee frustrated from scope creep at his computer

How to Avoid Scope Creep

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded scope creep – when a software or app project goes off the rails.  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of horror stories about this happening and having detrimental effects on companies and projects of all types.  

Given the complicated and fickle nature of software development, the threat of getting sidetracked always exists – but with effective planning, good communication, and a productive mindset it is possible to avoid scope creep. 

What is scope creep? 

Scope creep is when a software or app development projects goes over budget, takes more time than expected, or both.

The scope of a software project is, in effect, the entirety of the work that needs to be done to complete the project.  This includes the entire list of features that need to be built (the project requirements), the estimated time of completion, and the anticipated cost.  Whether you are working on a fixed price or retainer model – scope creep can occur for all or part of a project. 

Why it is important to avoid scope creep

Making a software or app is a major financial investment, and time to market can be an important factor in the success of a business.  For these reasons, it is obviously incredibly disruptive if a project goes over budget or over time.  This can create serious problems for a business and in some cases can even result in a product failing.  It is also important to note that scope creep can have cascading implications for a project, and if not handled quickly it can get worse and spread. 

Why does scope creep usually happen? 

Developing software and apps is always a bit unpredictable, particularly if building new and innovative features that require a lot of trial and error.  When building software, there are always unpredictable things that happen, bugs that occur, and other challenges that come up that can lead to delays and additional work.  A good software partner will always plan for these eventualities and accommodate for such unexpected impacts to the scope of a project before starting. 

Avoiding scope creep is more about minimizing and effectively managing unexpected changes and additions to a development plan once it has been initiated.

There are a number of ways that scope creep can occur, both in the context of a fixed price project or an ongoing retainer-style project.  Some of the common circumstances are below:

Insufficient Planning: 

In our view, one of the most important parts of any software or app project is to do extensive and detailed planning before starting development.  It is critical to map out every possible feature that might be included, in the initial version and future versions, to anticipate short and longer-term needs and potential challenges.  For more information on how to effectively plan your project, see this article.  The best analogy here is that of making a detailed blueprint before building a house – if you don’t invest the time and energy in planning out the blueprint, the house may not be built on a stable structure.  

The reason that planning is so important is precisely to avoid scope creep.  Scope creep often happens as a byproduct of insufficient planning.  When in the middle of the development process, it can be very disruptive to add new features or change the existing plan – this is exactly what tends to happen over and over when a project hasn’t been properly planned in advance.  Like a construction project, each change or addition can have serious impacts for a project – as they can often require undoing or redoing a lot of other work, which leads to higher costs and longer timelines.  

Lack of Understanding of the Development Process

It can be quite difficult to effectively manage a software or app development project.  This is particularly true for non-technical entrepreneurs or those managing a software project for the first time.  The reason for this is that there is a specific way that software development works, and things that may seem minor to a non-technical person, can actually require a tremendous amount of work.

Carrying on the analogy of a building a house – imagine this scenario: you’ve made a blueprint that has a basement with four rooms, two windows, and one bathroom hookup.  You build the basement and then move on to build the first floor of the house.  At this point you decide that you want to go back and add another window to the basement.  While this doesn’t sound like a huge project, it may, in real terms, be very difficult to do.  It may not be possible to just punch another hole in the basement wall – which may have been designed as a load bearing wall that supports the higher floors of the house.  It may actually be necessary to take down the entire first floor and second floor, and redo the basement floor plan from the start.  So, what seemed to a non-architect as a potentially simple change may actually require re-doing a huge amount of work, which of course will upend the budget and timeline. 

Software and app development is very similar – what may seem like a simple change to a non-technical person, may actually require re-doing a lot of work.   As an example: you build the registration process for an app, and move on to start building the other features of the app.  Well after the registration process is done, you realize that you forgot to include a ‘forgot password’ feature.  While adding this in may seem super simple, it actually isn’t.  Firstly, you need to decide all the steps that would happen – does selecting forgot password send an email or text notification to the user with instructions to reset?  If so, it is necessary to build the function of sending the email or text, and then build the next steps for how the password is changed, build in confirmation flows, and more.  If the registration didn’t capture user email or phone numbers, this will need to be changed to capture one of those so that users can be notified when they need to change their password.  As you can see, what seemed like a simple change can actually add quite a lot of work, and potentially require re-doing the entire registration process.  This is classic scope creep.  


Not Having Clear Change Protocols

As you are probably getting a sense of by reading this article, unexpected changes during software development can be very disruptive to the scope of work.  There are always external factors such as user feedback and client demands that make unanticipated changes a fact of life.  If not handled properly, these can lead to scope creep.  

This is an acute risk in projects where there are not pre-defined change protocols in place between the entrepreneur and the developers.  Without an established method for what to do when a change is required, there are myriad ways in which a project can go off the tracks.  This can happen regardless of the type of project, the structure of the development arrangement, and with projects that feature in-house developers or external technology partners.

In a fixed price project where an entrepreneur hires an outside company or developer, the timeline and cost is based on a very specific scope of work that is mutually agreed to before starting work.  This is often a great model to minimize the entrepreneur’s financial risk, but having a clearly articulated change logic and pricing is necessary to avoid scope creep.  Scope creep often results as a result of not having a clear way to incorporate changes.  Developers may proactively add work beyond the scope, sometimes without the entrepreneur first signing off which can lead to unexpected charges.  In other cases, unfortunately some development companies take advantage of this dynamic by doing lots of changes without clearly communicating the associated cost as a way to increase billable hours. 

In a retainer based model or full-time in-house development team, scope creep is still a risk.  Similarly, this often comes down to lack of change protocol.  If the developers don’t have clear direction or a logical decision tree when changes come up, they may take a variety of different approaches that could impact the scope.  They could proactively make the change, or decide to sweep it under the rug, both of which can lead to issues. For more information on how scope creep can result from team members see this article

Falling in Love with the Bells and Whistles

One of the most common mistakes that entrepreneurs make is falling in love with their vision for their product.  While it is of course important to be passionate about your software or app, it is equally important to get to market quickly and get feedback from real users – which should drive additions to the product.  It is very tempting to build all of the bells and whistles you can imagine from the start – but this mindset can lead to constant tampering with the project scope, and a cycle through which scope creep is bound to happen. 

Poor Communication

Last, but not at all least, is the threat of poor communication.  This factor cuts across all stages of a project and can create multiple scenarios in which scope creep becomes likely.  Communication is the common thread between all of the situations outlined in this article.  If there is a lack of communication and understanding between the entrepreneur and the development team, the project can suffer from any of the following: poor planning, insufficient understanding of the development process, lack of mutually agreed upon change logic, and a mindset of over-building. 

Now that we’ve outlined five major causes, we can diagnose solutions to each. 

  1. Plan well: before starting any project, invest time and necessary resources in the planning process.  If you don’t have a technical background, a software developer in-house, or a technology partner that you trust, it may even make sense to hire a technical consultant to help with this step in the process.  Effective planning is crucial – and one of the best ways to avoid scope creep.  
  2. Learn as much as you can about how the development process works.  This is something that is often best learned by doing – if this is your first time managing a software or app project, ask your developers or development partners to teach you how the process works and outline the process clearly.   The more you know about the process, the better you are able to anticipate and pre-empt issues that can lead to scope creep. 
  3. Establish clear change protocols.  Make sure you and your software developers have a clear protocol in place for how to handle unanticipated changes to the scope of the project.  If working with an outside developer or company, make sure that your contract indicates a clear pricing structure and change process that gives you sign off before any billable work is done that goes beyond the initial scope. 
  4. Edit your idea and start with less rather than more.  We’re huge advocates of starting with a minimal viable project which is a version of your idea that works well, looks great, but only has the absolutely essential functionalities.  It is always more productive to build additional features beyond the core functionalities based on feedback from real users.  Avoid the temptation to add in all the bells and whistles and avoid scope creep. 
  5. Find a technology partner that you fully trust and communicate well with.  Along with effective planning, communication is the most important factor in any software or app project.  Having a technology team or partner that you get along with well, trust fully, and have a clear common understanding with, will make all of the other factors listed in this article less likely to happen. 

Want expert help to make sure you avoid scope creep on your project?  Contact YourCTO today for a free consultation for your project.

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