No, we are not talking about a peeping Tom. Scope creep might sound like it, but trust us, it’s a completely different thing (we hope). It’s something that happens regularly in software development projects and can send even the best-laid plans into a tailspin. Even in agile projects, scope creep can rear its head, even though agile was constructed to get minimally affected by this.
Time for general knowledge – scope creep
Scope creep (also called requirement creep, kitchen sink syndrome, or feature creep) is a term coined to describe unexpected changes or requirements in project scope. It usually happens during projects and requires immediate reaction. And it’s one of the most hated terms in project management since it influences project schedule, budget, costs, and resource allocation.
Many projects have statically defined project scopes, so scope creep is a truly unwanted guest. You might think that in agile project management, scope creep doesn’t have that big of an influence, but you’d be wrong. Even in agile it can happen when items in the backlog aren’t prioritized properly after new requirements and demands are added.
Teams start sprints without clearly stated goals which can result in them being unsuccessful. Iterations lose their value if your team is lost due to unexpected changes that weren’t answered or appropriately communicated.
Some say that agile is the death of scope creep, but it isn’t so. It may affect you nonetheless. It will just manifest differently than in, for example, waterfall projects.
Scope creep is something that comes from clients, which is the opposite of gold plating, which we will discuss further on.
Scope creep in agile – yes, it’s possible
As mentioned, agile project development was created to minimize scope creep’s effects and make teams more flexible. In agile, time frames and budgets are fixed while requirements can change from sprint to sprint. It’s not a scope creep if backlog and features are defined before each sprint. Thus, newly added requirements or features can’t be considered scope creep as such.
But what can be then a scope creep in agile? Well, I’m glad you asked. Since it’s not like in a traditional project approach, it can be a bit more drastic to have an effect.
Change in requirements that significantly raise the stakes or complexity of the project
It’s not the same if you start with requirements and features for a simple project and end up with something more complex. Agile development is prepared for change requests, but switching the project’s complexity entirely is another story.
Often clients want a simple project and they define the brief accordingly. Then all of a sudden, they realize they want to add more, more complex, more intricate, more demanding parts of the solutions. After all, the market changes in rapid intervals, and, consequently, so do software demands.
So, here, it’s not about changing just some features. It’s about abandoning the initial setup and switching to more grandiose project scopes. It’s easy for clients to get caught up in shiny new things, so it’s up to the project manager or product owner to communicate that some things are not feasible in the same project scope. If it’s becoming rather complex, it’s better to develop new approaches and treat it as a new project. An agile project might be built to support the need for change, but even those have their limits.
Change in the project after certain features were done and previously done features have to be scrapped
I think that everyone has encountered this once or twice in their career. You’ve already delivered and finished part of a project and then, in comes the request to scrap it and start all over. It happens when there is a change in the market, inside the company or the users shifted from one segment and changed their behavior. The client can’t say that they just changed their mind. It’s not even a change request, it’s completely “ruining” progress made, and starting all over. Time and budget were lost due to the development of a feature that was tried and tested, but clients suddenly decided they don’t want it anymore.
In this case, a change of scope crept in. Even in agile, when features are implemented, backtracking is not easy to recover from. The project needs an extended time frame and a new budget, or other previously planned features will have to be struck off. Which, a lot of time is not the case. Clients want it all. They want the old features they agreed on and the new ones for the same cost and within the same time limit. But, the world isn’t a perfect place, and there needs to be a tradeoff between new requests and pre-planned features or components.
Getting too caught up in scope changes and diverting too far from initial specifications and project goals
If the project has been non-stop interrupted with change requests and new features, it soon becomes harder to manage and stay on track. Backlog items need precise and timely management to allocate them across the whole timeline and to the right developers. It’s vital not to overwhelm developers with too many requests and changes because it might happen that the software won’t reach the highest level of quality. There are a lot of times when the development team says yes to everything. In comes doubt, too many tasks and the initial vision gets warped.
Before any project, the product owner should align the concept, vision, values, and client goals with requirements and backlog items that developers will work on. If too many changes happen at once or are constant during the development cycle or sprints, all of the notions on how the software should look will fall through.
The development team gets caught up in many changes and the initial vision is there no more. They lose sight of the end goal and start doubting the product’s quality and intention. Project managers and product owners are caught between fulfilling clients’ wishes and the development team’s motivation and project understanding.
Just say “no”. There was that cartoon way back where they taught children to say no to dangerous things and occurrences. And we can apply this concept in terms of avoiding scope creep and gold plating. Sometimes, software development teams need to stand their ground and be rational to avoid scope creep.
What about gold plating?
Oh, we have come to the infamous gold plating. The total opposite of scope creep in terms of who initiates changes. Where scope creep is coming from clients, gold plating is coming from the internal team. As the name suggests it’s about adding additional features the client did not ask for, all just to display the team’s capabilities and get on the client’s good side. Which is of course unnecessary. Clients did not authorize these additional changes or upgrades and they often have no use for them. It’s just what it states, it’s adding bling to something that does not need bling.
Even though developers might think it’s a good idea to add something, it also leads to unnecessary costs and time wastage. If it’s not client-approved, don’t bother. Don’t change the scope and project timeline just because you felt like it.
Well, what to do now?
There are ways to handle scope creep, in agile and waterfall project management processes. It involves having flexibility but also preparation for such events. It also requires standing your ground and being firm with some decisions. In any project cycle, you’ll need clearly defined scope, change, and risk management plans.
Outline requirements, prioritize tasks, and write your deliverables
Sounds simple, yes, but many fail to properly organize themselves in projects. Even in agile, try to outline your project. Product owners and project managers have to prioritize tasks accordingly. Good planning precedes successful sprints. Writing down your deliverables should come naturally and it’s a way to keep track of your progress and the reporting between the development team and clients.
Create change control processes and change management plan
Set up rules and directions to manage changes in scope and requirements. This will serve to tell you how to approach scope creep and new unexpected feature implementations. You can outline some flexible steps you have to conduct when there is a change request or scope change. Make sure that all team members are aware of it, so they’ll know what to do when it happens.
Stick to the project schedule and make it clear to all stakeholders
Clear communication sounds like a given, but you’d be surprised how many times projects or parts of it fail because of miscommunication. Keep everything concise and straightforward and try not to veer off the path.
Verify the project scope and requirements with stakeholders
To add to the clear communication, verifying everything with your stakeholders is a must. You don’t want to start development on something you’re not sure that your clients are on board with. Each time, check with them if you understood their goals correctly and convey to them what you need and will do to fulfill those demands.
Engage and involve project team members
Scope creep is a dangerous thing if your team isn’t involved in each step of the project. Try to create a culture of exchange where all can provide information and be informed of each development stage. A clear understanding of the project’s goals, vision, and value is what drives excellent development and thus appropriate response to changes. If each team member is actively involved, they can provide solutions to those instant and new requirements.
Incorporate and calculate extra means for scope changes
Not to be caught off guard, most projects demand some extra means for those unexpected changes. Whether you plan for budget leeway or extra time, it’s great to have both. This way you won’t go over estimation and keep your team from stressing out or worse, burnout.
Sometimes, just say no
In some situations, it’s okay to say no. If you say yes to every single change, the project, and its scope will differ from the original plan tremendously. The whole vision will change, and you’ll have difficulty providing value. Both the development team and clients have to be aware of this.
After all, it’s not a perfect world
In all honesty, scope creeps or gold plating are not always avoidable. You will encounter projects where everything goes smoothly, but there will be more of them where this might not be the case. Often, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of project managers and product owners to keep everything on track and everyone happy.
But, the whole software development process is a cycle, filled with iterations and running back and forth between clients and developers who deliver the end product. Getting constant feedback is a must, and with those iterations, values get created. It’s no wonder that most switch to agile project management. So, what’s the ultimate advice here? Well, there is no perfect recipe for scope creep avoidance. It all depends on the client and the quality and flexibility of your team. If those two align, then you’re golden.