How to prevent scope creep when managing a project from home

When unexpected changes are requested during the development process, your final product may be a lot more complicated than what your spec originally called for. This phenomenon is called “scope creep.” Add a fully remote team with thin work-life boundaries on top of that, and you've got problems.

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When you are in charge of a project, you expect your team to perform and satisfy your user requirements. In return, you always seek to lead with clarity and empathy towards your team members. But what happens when management wants to change certain product features on top of the existing project scope?

As a team lead, you’re probably accustomed to this situation. Projects frequently change because of user feedback or dynamic business conditions. It’s natural, and it could lead to positive results.

However, when all of these unexpected changes add up, your final product may be a lot more complicated than what your spec originally called for. This phenomenon is called “scope creep.” It is one of the most challenging aspects of project management as you have to continually balance your timeline and demands.

What is scope creep?

When a project’s list of deliverables begin to go beyond its original vision or scope, you can say it’s suffering from scope creep. It refers to a change in specifications that takes place midway through the project timeline without the adjustments in time and resources that are needed to ensure its successful execution.

For instance, if an internal stakeholder pushes for an additional feature without considering the time and cost aspect of development and the project manager just says “yes” to every request, your project is susceptible to scope creep.

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Scope creep is generally the result when key project stakeholders add requirements to the original project plan. It also occurs as a result of internal miscommunication and disagreements. Over time, customer expectations change and providing a project that answers their needs also means expanding the scope up to a reasonable extent. However, it is always a balancing act involving the three key project factors: quality, time, and cost.

Three primary reasons for scope creep in projects

Scope creep can occur for any number of reasons. A small change request can turn a minor design feature into a major requirement. A new executive could convince the stakeholders to focus on a certain feature. It can also be caused by not explicitly defining the scope at the beginning of a new project.

Some scope creep triggers are beyond your control. For example, if there is a change at the top of your organizational structure, you can't predict with certainty how an ongoing project would be affected. Internal projects are also not immune to scope creep as stakeholders can and will push for changes to the project definition and scope that will benefit their own departments.

1. Poorly defined initial criteria

Scope creep can be a direct consequence of poorly specified criteria, which is often the result of unclear and inaccurate communications. A vague set of deliverables and timelines is often an easy target for stakeholders who feel like they can demand whatever they want.

This also occurs when the team is denied the time required to assemble and identify comprehensive criteria. Everyone ends up with a hazy knowledge of the requirements, and when individual agendas come into play, it turns into a free-for-all.

The lack of communication between the project team and the users or stakeholders is usually the biggest obstacle in scope creep risk mitigation. When a project team does not clearly understand the requirements, the final product will be entirely different from the original plan.

Sometimes, users and project owners are also to blame for scope creep. When they do not have a clear vision of what they want, they tend to change their minds often, which leads to more confusion and never-ending project change requests.

2. Underestimating the complexity of the project

Many business development executives and project managers tend to underestimate the complexity and cost of a project, especially when they’re just bidding for it. However, in an attempt to cut costs, these managers often fail to grasp how complex it is. What appears initially to be a task that takes one or two steps could actually take five or more steps when it’s being executed.

As a developer, you want a clear set of expectations that will allow you to plan your tasks accordingly. Programmers and developers perform best when they know exactly what the project sponsor expects of them. A project brief that plays down a project’s complexity might result in missed deadlines and difficulties in securing the resources needed to finish particularly difficult tasks.

This kind of estimation error is common in projects that are being done for the first time in a company or industry, especially when they’re led by project managers who don’t have a good grasp of the technical requirements. Nobody knows what to expect, and there’s no one to ask for advice. A good project manager will involve a knowledgeable developer who’s worked on similar projects in setting time and cost timelines.

3. Gold plating

The term “gold plating” refers to the tendency to exceed a project’s specifications. Such modifications ultimately consume time and expenditure and are not expected to boost consumer satisfaction by much.

Usually, gold plating is carried out at no extra cost to the company by the project team. They do it with the aim of delighting the leadership. However, it can backfire. Because you are introducing new features to the product without prior authorization, they can view it as an unauthorized change. This could result in the project getting rejected as a whole.

Why do project teams resort to gold plating?

  • To make users happy: Project teams want to add to a product’s “wow” factor by adding new features. However, these features might not be needed or diminish the intended functionality of the product.
  • Showing off: Both project managers and team members incorporate new features to show off their skills and boost their reputation. However, the gold-plated features could make the product less effective or more expensive to run.
  • Diverting focus from defects: A team might also add extra features to make up for unresolved bugs in the final product.

Gold plating will raise the overall cost and risk of the project and force you to move the timetable. This raises the project owner’s expectations. If you don’t meet their expectations, you risk making them unhappy with your work.

Scope creep and working from home

Imagine that you are an iOS developer working from home, and your team was assigned to build a food delivery solution for people on the Keto diet.

You carefully plan out the number of hours you expect the project to take before signing up for the job and mapped out your entire process. The deliverables you agree to supply to the customer include:

  • A customer app, including registration and profile creation, restaurant search, order placing, shopping cart, payment, and tracking.
  • A restaurant app, with a registration and profile creation system, a dashboard, an order management system, and payment integration with Stripe, Paypal, and Square API.
  • A courier app, including registration and profile creation, a status update method, order management, e-wallet, and a rewards and incentive system.
  • Integration with Facebook, Apple ID, and Google.
  • Push notifications.
  • UI/UX design

You expect this job to take you 300 hours spread over two months. You also decide to hire a project-based UX designer as you want to focus on the back-end of the system.

Halfway through the development stage of the project, a new project manager joins the team and asks for feedback on the project that you have already begun. It turns out that the product owners want to add new features to the app, such as the ability to send push notifications through WhatsApp or to share food pictures and reviews through Instagram.

After the meeting, you’ll need to go back to the drawing board to come up with some different kinds of ideas for the new project manager's approval, and the emails back and forth about this end up absorbing a large portion of the remaining hours.

When you work from home, communicating with users, stakeholders, and project owners can take up extra hours of your time, leading you to cancel your other plans. You may find yourself working into the night, hoping to meet your project deadlines.

How to prevent scope creep: six strategies

The first thing you need to know is that scope creep is inevitable, especially if your team runs on a project management methodology that emphasizes quick sprints and continuous improvement.

Your aim, therefore, should not be to stop it entirely. Instead, you need to mitigate it. You can build some amount of scope creep into your project planning, just enough to show flexibility without endangering the quality of the project.

Here's a list of scope control measures that will not cause your project to be disrupted by scope creep:

1. Define your project scope and timeline

Before you could manage a project effectively, you need to define the scope thoroughly. Here are two things you need to do as you define your scope and timeline:

  • Work with key stakeholders in creating feature specs and business requirement documents that will allow your team to come up with an MVP (minimum viable product) This will ensure that you don’t leave out any important deliverables or features while ensuring that the product has room for improvement. Ensure that your developers are included in initial planning so that they can comment on the technical feasibility of any features the product folks dream up.
  • Identify, register, and express your assumptions. Assumptions are those elements that are considered valid for the duration of the project related to the project. For example, you need to assume that all the key decision-makers will be present at all the meetings and that the stakeholders will provide all the information you need to finish your tasks.

Being flexible with your budget and timelines will help you deal with project changes. It would help if you specify a buffer to stay comfortable and not make choices solely based on the fear of overshooting the budget.

2. Implement a change management process

Sometimes, you can’t avoid requested changes that come as a result of user or stakeholder feedback. However, you can always prepare for them. Establishing a set of change control and management procedures will ensure that each change request goes through the proper channels.

First, you need to ensure that the requested changes are clearly communicated. One of the leading causes of scope creep is poorly-defined specifications, and change requests are no exception. Each change request should be described clearly, and the reasons for the change should also address a problem that is specific to the project.

Second, you and your team should assess the change request, along with the project sponsor, the person or department making the request, and other individuals that might be affected by the change. A single change request can have an impact on more than just the timeline or cost. It could also affect the availability of resources and other projects that are dependent on the completion of the project in question.

Finally, you need to put an approval/denial system in place. This involves identifying people who can approve or deny change requests, the number of approvers needed for a change to push through, a method for verifying that the change has been executed (such as a code change management system like Git), and the criteria for declaring the change a success or failure.

3. Organize your day effectively

When you're working from home, you will have several chores and duties you need to complete throughout the day. It can be quite hard to keep track of meetings and team deliverables, time-off requests, last-minute conferences, and other project-related activities if you and your team aren’t working on-site.

By using scheduling software, you can have visibility over your team members’ time, file for time off, and share your schedule with other team members. By planning and scheduling your day properly and ensuring that your teammates’ schedules are also aligned, you can get a good idea of the amount of work that you need to do daily so that you can make progress with project tasks.

Managing scope creep also means that you have all the resources you need for specific activities right when you need them, and that you are able to conduct sprints according to the timeline you originally agreed on with the team and the project owners.

Using a project management tool like Trello, Jira, or Monday.com will help you identify which tasks are pending, on track, or in danger of running over schedule. This information will allow you to assign resources to urgent tasks and ensure that your project sticks to the timeline, even if your team is working on their deliverables remotely.

4. Ensure clear communication with colleagues

The consequence of unclear communication methods is a lack of efficiency. If your team is not willing or able to answer questions directly, it will result in your email inboxes or Slack channels getting flooded with messages and replies. This makes it difficult for your team to look for information in the future.

As a remote developer, you need to ensure that you communicate clearly with your colleagues, stakeholders, project managers, and vendors (if you have any). The clearer you are with your communications, the smoother the project will run.

Here are 5 tips for establishing effective communications within remote teams:

  • Be proactive when communicating with your team: When a team member asks a question, try to answer right away.
  • Schedule routine standups: This will give you a glimpse into your team members’ progress and give them a much-needed opportunity to voice their opinions.
  • Set goals from the beginning: Clear goals will give your team a better idea of what they need to accomplish.
  • Learn how to say “no”: A lot of scope creep comes from users or stakeholders who seem to think that developers are automatons. A firm but gentle “no” followed by an explanation of your workload and technical limitations will help you push back on unreasonable requests that could lead to scope creep.
  • Provide extra lead time on tasks: This will help protect against scope creep and ensure that tasks get done on time, even if your team members have to juggle work and household chores.

It doesn't have to be hard to connect effectively with a team of remote employees; you just have to think smartly about the most productive ways to connect and speak to them.

5. Involve your team in the decision-making process

Whether you’re a developer or a project manager, you can’t avoid receiving lots of feedback and suggestions from your team, higher management, or end users. You might be tempted to consider every change, but it could harm you and the business in the long run. However, as a subject matter expert, you have the final say on the requests that your team will implement.

It would be best to consider every aspect of the change, evaluate every option, discuss with your team, and make the final decision based on your team’s feedback. Getting your team involved will allow you to gauge their ability and availability to execute the change and their willingness to do so. Their input will be very useful when you come up with revised timelines and scope documents.

6. Calculate wasted time and costs

No project runs without a budget. Many project managers measure their success by how much it costs to finish a project. However, even if you put a lot of safeguards in place, you can’t help but go over budget, especially when change requests keep coming in and you have to re-do specific tasks.

People also underestimate the amount of time required for projects to be implemented. This is particularly true when the project manager is not acquainted with the tasks to be completed. Your job as a developer is to educate the project manager about the amount or nature of work that the project requires so that they can create reasonable project timelines.

You should also be involved in setting the budget for your project, especially if the work involves more than one developer. The cost of development is more than just the compensation you receive for the project—it also includes expenses such as electricity and equipment, especially if you’re building a product from the ground up.

Once you go into the implementation phase of the project, you should be able to get a good idea of your expenses. As you tally the costs you’ve incurred, you need to constantly compare them with the budget that has been allocated to your project.

Nothing scares stakeholders more than a project running over budget, and once they see that the changes they’ve requested are the root of the extra costs, they might start reconsidering their requests. Of course, you can also leverage your calculations to get more funding for the changes, especially if they require new software or hiring extra programmers.

Bottom line

Scope creep is a near-universal phenomenon that could happen to any software development project. It is a leading cause of project failure as well. Scope creep can happen due to different reasons, such as an ill-defined scope, lack of change control, poor communication, or improper risk planning.

Like so many other organizational problems, avoiding scope creep requires consistent communication, expectation management, a healthy respect for boundaries, and a well-defined roadmap to the desired result. Making these a priority upfront will save you and your team a lot of time, energy, cash, and eye-rolling along the way.

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