Scope creep (sometimes called feature creep in product management) refers to a tendency for the requirements and deliverables of a project to slowly expand or become distracted over time.
A project’s scope will often widen over its lifecycle as requests from customers and stakeholders for new features and functionality come in. This is a natural (and essential) part of any product development process, but issues arise when teams get sidetracked on the wrong things.
Customer needs can change after the initial requirements for a product have been set, so effective product management requires a high degree of flexibility.
That said; any changes made must align with the overarching product vision — otherwise teams risk wasting resources (and creating weaker products) by focusing on the wrong things.
Scope creep can emerge in different ways, but most typically it occurs when teams start adding in additional functionality or features that haven’t been properly prioritized in the roadmap.
While the roots of scope creep are typically found in external factors, it sometimes arises as a result of lack of consensus within teams, internal miscommunication, or weaknesses in product or (or project) management processes.
Scope creep is sometimes illustrated with a boiling frog analogy. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heating water, product managers often don’t realize scope creep has happened until it hits boiling point and are hit with a delay or budget crunch.
Cost projections are often the first casualty. If integrating additional requests and updates pushes team hours beyond original resourcing estimates, budgets can quickly be blown.
The knock-on effects of extra development time can also increase costs related to design, manufacture, and fulfillment, further impacting the product (or project’s) profitability.
Ultimately, product and user experiences tend to be negatively affected by unmanaged scope creep.
To stay on top of scope creep, it's vital to have clearly prioritized product roadmap in place that documents changes to the project requirements and display their impact on priorities or timelines.
An effective product roadmap can also be the basis of a change control process, which includes:
Monitoring a product’s current status
Understanding the original scope of a project and its core objective
Capturing actual progress, then comparing it to the core objective to know how much the current project has diverged from the original plan
Detailing the causes of any change in requirements and defining how much product development has changed as a result
Evaluating change requests to recommend actions or decide if they should be challenged
Ensuring all changes are processed, documented, and broken down into actionable tasks