5 Hacks to Control Scope Creep on Your Web Development Projects

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We’re all on our best behavior during those initial project scope discussions and treading lightly into a new business relationship. And most projects seem straightforward enough at the outset anyway. 

However, something unexpected will inevitably come up. There’s a new feature that has to be added or a build is suddenly more complicated than planned. Those are two examples of scope creep, a plague on the web development world.

Basically, scope creep happens when tasks that go beyond the original and agreed-upon bounds of a project pop up mid-work.

Scope creep doesn't have to plague your web development projects to such an extent forever. Learning how to identify and mitigate it ensures a much healthier and more productive relationship for everyone involved.

How and Why to Mitigate Scope Creep in Development Projects

Scope creep has a serious impact on development projects. For one, it increases costs. Why? Because scope creep means adding precious time to complete unexpected tasks and/or delaying other aspects of a project. And, as we all know, time is money. 

Furthermore, you may have to find some way to adjust your project to accommodate scope creep. That often entails sacrificing quality or de-scoping certain parts of a project to make up for scope expansions elsewhere.

Loss of focus is a symptom of scope creep, too. Someone might think an added feature is paramount to a project, but that could result in neglecting or diluting what was deemed essential at the start of the engagement. Besides, managing change is a distraction in and of itself.   

Finally, scope creep can cause friction in your professional relationships, or even break those bonds completely. Whichever party ends up absorbing the costs and time associated with scope creep (usually the developer) will likely feel resentful. There’s also a chance one party or another will be unhappy with the final project deliverables. Even if every requested feature is added in, the whole project has been sullied by expanded timelines and associated costs.

You can’t avoid scope creep or its consequences completely. What you can do is minimize it from the get-go and mitigate its effect when it does happen with our five scope creep hacks. 

1. Align Expectations Around Project Scope

Ensuring you, your clients, and your dev partner are all on the same page about a project’s deliverables and outcomes is crucial when it comes to fending off scope creep. 

Scope creep comes from any and all parties involved in a dev project — even developers themselves. And it’s even more compounded in multi-client engagements. Meaning, if you’re working with a nearshore partner and you’re serving your own clients, there are more people involved who can introduce scope creep.

With all of these different players and potential scope creep sources, it’s imperative to align scope and expectations. If you’re misaligned, your client could easily request something outside of scope they assumed they’d be getting. You’re now left in the tough situation of explaining this miscommunication to your developers and asking (or even requiring) extra work. 

Don’t forget that part of aligning on scope should include separating your must-haves from your nice-to-haves. That way, you lay out your non-negotiable project aspects for all to see and relegate the rest to bonuses if there’s excess time or budget. 

2. Create Technical Specifications

In addition to aligning on your scope documents, create and align on technical specifications. Technical specs are detailed documents that define a digital product’s behavior, functionality, flexibility, and user experience (UX). 

Holding off on all-out development and taking the time to create specifications (and review them with stakeholders) will be a major timesaver. Make sure to set aside enough time to comfortably discuss them and avoid rushing through pages and pages on a single session.

Oftentimes, design and UX are major instigators of scope creep. For example, you quote a client based on rough wireframes but have to implement complexity embedded in detailed designs down the line.

Technical specifications spell out precisely what each technical piece of a project entails so a wireframe can remain a wireframe and not become an instance of scope creep. 

3. Agree to Flag Scope Issues Early and Honestly

Despite your best alignment efforts, issues will arise. It’s how you handle these issues that determines how out of hand your scope becomes. 

Everyone on a project loves to say, “we’ll try to fit it in” when approached with an idea for an out-of-scope feature or add-on. It’s a way to bypass disappointing a client by simply saying no. In reality, you’re procrastinating. You will need to address their ask or issue eventually. Putting it off until later in the project when you’re even busier isn’t a smart option.  

Instead, flag issues and add-ons that come up right away. Be straightforward about your capacity to handle something new and its potential impact on scope. You should also advocate for the same candor from your own clients and developers. 

Deciding on a direct method to flag and address issues early on will save all parties from scrambling in the eleventh hour.  

4. Leverage a Backlog for Post-Launch Tasks

If you’ve agreed on your method to flag and address issues and all parties are being honest about what they can and can’t do, some things won’t get done by launch. 

But just because something can’t be a priority in the moment doesn’t mean it will never be accomplished. Establish and continue to take advantage of a backlog. A backlog is simply a repository for future, post-launch development tasks.

Maintaining and leveraging a backlog is pivotal for dev projects, especially when you're following an agile process. In a nutshell, the agile development manifesto says: prioritize, deliver early and often, and, of course, backlog the non-essential.  

A task moved to the backlog is a task that didn’t become a source of scope creep. This way, you'll continue to prioritize what needs to happen before launch or deployment and eliminate yet another opportunity for scope creep. 

This is also a great way to transition to a maintenance and ongoing development engagement.

5. Start with a Budget Buffer

Scope creep is unavoidable. Yes, you can work to downplay its impact, and we’ve given you the tools to do so. Still, it will happen to some extent no matter what. 

To that end, make sure you're setting aside funds to cover inevitable instances of scope creep. We suggest adding a 20% buffer to your original budget. Ideally, this extra money goes unused or partially used. But again, having it there bypasses the havoc scope creep can wreak on relationships. 

The Takeaway

The term 'scope creep' is used so often, it's easy to dismiss it as business jargon. But you know that it describes a very real issue with very real consequences. Fortunately, with the right processes in place, you can do your part to lessen instances of scope creep on your web development projects. 

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