What Is a Scope Creep?

Mary McMahon

Scope creep is a shift in the scope of a project that occurs over the course of development without corresponding changes to support the expanded nature of the project. Adjustments are inevitable over the course of a project as personnel learn more about what they are doing, add or subtract features, and resolve issues they may not have been able to predict. Small changes can add up and turn into scope creep, where a project becomes much larger than originally intended.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

The key feature with scope creep is that the project's schedule remains the same. The developers must do more in less time, and the expanded scope may create heightened expectations. Clients and people outside the development team, like administrators, may be frustrated with what they see as slow progress or an incomplete project. The developers may struggle to complete the project on time or could run into problems with inadequate testing and troubleshooting because they must focus on the new features, rather than on perfecting the underlying structure of the project.

Another problem is the tendency to keep resource dedications the same. Personnel must complete a much larger project on the same budget they had before, with the same staff members and facilities. Scope creep can make this functionally impossible; a client may ask for a feature, for example, that no one on the development team can actually comfortably provide. This will lead to dissatisfaction. The development team may request more funding and staffing to help with project completion and the client can balk at the added expenses.

This phenomenon can quickly get out of control. There are some tactics to address the risk of scope creep. Many developers build some leeway into their projects when they set up estimates and scheduling. The addition of buffers for time and funding may mean that the project is completed under schedule and under budget if the team remains focused and does not have to meet extra project needs. If clients start adding features, these buffer zones create room to implement those features without putting the whole project at a risk.

In the course of project development, team members can address scope creep with a clear process for handling request, especially when those requests involve adding features. Clear communication is a critical tool for managing scope creep, to make sure that everyone involved has the same information and is aware of the ramifications of extra features or other requests.

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