Scope creep is a term that describes when changes are added to a project that go beyond its intended goal.
The term scope represents the parameters or requirements that depict the project’s definition of done.
The term creep depicts how some seemingly gradual changes make their way into the project’s scope.
All product organizations are prone to scope creep to some degree. One of the purposes of agile development is to limit the degree to which unnecessary work is included in an iteration or release.
There are many reasons why organizations are susceptible to scope creep. Some of these include:
Little or no direction — Organizations often lack a clear vision (aka “north star”). They don’t have the why behind what they’re building. This results in products that feel disjointed, bloated or unnecessary.
Low discipline — Those responsible for deciding what will and won’t be included in a project often don’t have the courage or discipline to say no to certain ideas. If the objective of a release is to determine whether customers will find a certain feature valuable, adding extra functionality to that release increases costs in the form of development resources, time and opportunity costs.
Waterfall mentality — Organizations that approach product development with a checklist mentality will treat a released feature as complete rather than as functionality that needs learning and improvement. This mindset is what makes the difference between a waterfall organization and an agile organization. Waterfall organizations attempt to build the “ultimate” product before releasing it. Waterfall product development is scope creep formalized.
Shiny object syndrome — Related to each of the reasons above, organizations that are constantly shifting focus to chase the new shiny thing leave a trail of neglected functionality behind them. It’s true that agile teams should mercilessly pivot when circumstances require but these pivots should be strategic and with a full awareness of what is being neglected as a result. Product teams that otherwise want to quickly build incremental functionality to improve a feature are tempted to include scope creep in a release out of a fear that decision-makers will once again shift the focus to other features once the first iteration is released.
Prolonged release cycles – Related to the issue above, when enough releases have been prolonged (ironically due to scope creep), stakeholders are often tempted to add more functionality than is necessary to the next release. They see a feature’s release as their “one shot” to get it “done right”. This causes a downward spiral where more functionality keeps getting added to the current release and as a result causes more scope creep to be added to future releases.
Perfectionism – When it comes to agile development, perfection is the enemy of good. Unlike architecting a skyscraper, agile software teams can deliver value to customers incrementally and quickly. This doesn’t mean that careful planning should be neglected but teams should be mindful not to get stuck in analysis paralysis.
Some important considerations to avoid scope creep:
Clearly defined objective(s) – In his book Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love, Marty Cagan urged product teams to stay focused on defining a minimal product and warned “but your job as product manager is not to define the ultimate product, it’s to define the smallest possible product that will meet your goals.”. Knowing what your objectives are will provide requirement guardrails to limit scope creep.
Definition of done – Clearly defining ahead of time what it means for the project to be considered “done” is also necessary to avoid scope creep. While objectives communicate the why in a project, the definition of done communicates the what.
MVP vs MMP – When organizations have a common understanding about what constitutes a minimal viable product (MVP) and what constitutes a minimal marketable product (MMP) it helps to set clearer expectations about what the objectives and definitions of done are within each phase. A MVP can be the term organizations use to represent early beta iterations of a product or feature. A MMP can be the term organizations use when the objectives and definition of done are met so that they can deliver and communicate a product or feature to the broader market. What should be considered MMP functionality is often called MVP functionality and is rationalized into earlier iterations than it should be. This is a prime example of how scope creep occurs.