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Why Preventing Scope Creep is Like Making Chili

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

The person who coined the phrase “You can never have too much of a good thing” probably never encountered a situation dealing with software features. As a business owner or entrepreneur looking to start a development related project, you’re going to want to know about preventing scope creep. What is scope creep? Simply put, it is the situation that arises when the “scope” of an in-process project begins to expand to include additional features and functionality beyond the original goals of the project.  When this happens, the original scope of the project is lost in a myriad of additions and changes that may or may not add benefit to the end user.

Scope creep can be caused by a number of different reasons, including:

  • A lack of focus on building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • A poorly detailed initial project scope
  • Indecisive project stakeholders
  • Too many project stakeholders with differing opinions

As discussed in a previous blog post, 7 Reasons Why Software Product Fail, scope creep can be triggered by the smallest of brainstorming meetings or update calls, where phrases like “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” get innocently suggested and then fully supported by the team.  The next thing you know, something that was an innocent suggestion has the whole development team derailed onto something that was not a priority or is not core to the project.  The reality is, in-process changes can quickly pile up and wreak havoc on your timeline and budget, especially if you need to have something completed by a certain date.

The Chili Dilemma

Our software development team at Swip Systems firmly believes that scope creep is incredibly detrimental to a project, even when it is due to seemingly positive outcomes. To use a simple analogy, think of scope creep like being a chef in charge of cooking a pot of chili for a dinner party. Say that you and your significant other decided on a certain kind of chili you want to make. You outline the recipe you want to follow, and your significant other gives you a grocery list, $20, and a time to have dinner ready by—6 pm.

After hearing this, you rush out to buy all the ingredients on the list, and start cooking soon after… everything is coming along great! At some point after browning your ground beef, you decide that your chili might be better with more mild peppers, so you opt for poblano peppers instead of jalapeño peppers. You stop browning the ground beef and start to look for poblano peppers. You realize that you don’t have any and have to make another trip to the store. While you’re at the store, your spouse rinses the ground beef to get rid of the jalapeño taste, learning quickly that they cannot fully get rid of the heat since some of it is baked in.  You get back from the store and learn this, but know that you have to move on in order to get done in time.  

You begin to reheat the ground beef as some of the guests arrive. They smell your creation and one quickly suggests that chicken chili might be better for dinner. You see where this is going, right? More guests arrive and one suggests using kidney beans instead of black beans because he’s had chili that way before and thinks ALL chili should be made that way. Everyone begins chatting, and they agree that it might be nice to try chili like that. So, you pause your work, head back to the store, spend more money on ingredients, and come back to revise your chili. You peer at the clock, realizing it’s nearly 6 pm, and let everyone know that you’ll need extra time to finish making dinner.

What’s happened after this whole ordeal?

  • You’ve blown your $20 budget
  • You’re not going to serve dinner by 6pm
  • You now have some sort of Frankenstein beef, chicken, jalapeño, poblano, kidney bean, black bean chili that everyone is just acting like they love.  Your chili project was just killed by scope creep!

When all is said and done, your chili isn’t anything close to what your original recipe called for, and you just spent a great deal of extra time and money in altering it along the way, AND the chili is not any better.

I’m blown away that people can see this in a simple chili example, but most are completely blind to it in a real world software development project.

3 Great Solutions for Preventing Scope Creep

Much like the chili dilemma above, scope creep can be avoided through careful planning and managing the to do list. These 3 tips can put you on the right track if you’re starting a project and want to prevent scope creep…

1. Be mindful of the outcome you’re trying to achieve
If you think of a chili recipe as your project outline, you want to know precisely the kind of chili you’re making BEFORE you start. So, rather than saying, “I want to make chili”, your goal should be, “I want to make a white bean chicken chili with poblano peppers.” In a business sense, you want your project to have a clearly defined scope of work, outlining the exact goals you’re striving for, and defining what is needed to produce the solution (a list of ingredients).

2. Develop your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) FIRST
A recipe doesn’t become an overnight success.  It happens because an inspired chef perfected a base recipe, got feedback from his peers, then kept revising to get the perfect result. With software development, you should plan your “recipe” in the same way so that you aim to develop a minimum market-ready product that you can use to test the waters and get initial feedback on from your prototype group. Much like we mentioned in another recent blog postit’s best to develop the MVP first… one which delivers only the necessary features your team has laid out. This saves valuable resources for future revisions.  Focus on making version 1.0 work FIRST and parking lot any “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” items before they kill your project.

3. Ensure communication is consistent – and vigilant
One of the biggest hold ups of a software development project often lies in lapses in communication between developer and client. As a business owner, your best bet for preventing scope creep is to work with a team that is led by a proactive project manager. Having soeone who can track the progress and manage the to do list is key to the success of your project, wheather it’s developing a mobile application or setting up an ERP system.

The Bottom Line…

Scope creep has killed many software projects before yours. Your project isn’t special or immune to it. If you don’t handle preventing scope creep from your end, your project will suffer and may never see completion. Become a scope managing, MVP, parking lot warrior and you’ll increase your chances of success at a minimum by a factor of 2.

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Tom Swip

Tom Swip has been developing and streamlining business processes for over 20 years. Tom's expertise lies in business process automation, software and application design and network infrastructure. In his spare time, Tom likes kayaking, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.

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