The Dangers of Scope Creep

Avoiding costly mistakes in your software plans

Scope creep has been a bugbear in software for many decades; and even agile processes haven’t been successful in pushing out this dangerous practice. In software, it seems much easier to add scope creep than it does in other parts of our lives. But recently I’ve been going through some significant home renovations and scope creep has been front-and-center.

When it comes to our family’s home renovation, I like to think I’m a bit more basic and simple than the rest of my family. 🧰🤔 I like a plan and I like to move forward with the plan. A few changes here-or-there are okay, but stick to plan. 📑

However, my “better-half” enjoys a more relaxed and iterative approach to home design. We generally balance each other out quite well; but when she starts talking with the designer and contractor—I get nervous, very nervous. 😬🙀

Case in point, my home renovation has gone from a budget that I accepted to something that is more than 3X the original (i.e. revised but accepted) budget. Instead of being out of the house for 4 months, I’m now out of the house for 8 months and counting. A straightforward kitchen renovation with some paint and paper has exploded into many months and us being kicked out of the house entirely.

You can see from the picture how my kitchen renovation has expanded (hint: that is not the kitchen). This change was not part of the original plan. I’m sure it will look great once it’s done but that is many months out and costly.

It’s hard not to draw parallels to software development. How many times has a development team -- be it at a startup or corporation -- set out with a plan only to be derailed by scope creep?

Every little change, though it may sound “simple” or “quick” in theory, means timelines get adjusted and more money gets spent. Sometimes the implications of one change can result in a domino effect. 🁒🧐

Like me, you’ve probably witnessed projects turn into months or even years of work, simply because someone (a higher-up maybe?) wanted to add just one more feature, which then required significant changes that uncovered a nightmare of dependencies.

On the flip side, sticking to an intensely rigid plan is also not good. Even at Charli, we’ve gone through our own pivots and reimaginings to get us to where we are today. We couldn’t have done that if we were too fixated on our original plan.

But, as I write this article, today is going to be a different conversation with our team — and that is how to kill scope creep. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t underestimate what it takes to get a gold plated version. It’s not just costly; it’s outrageously expensive. Software is harder than it looks and difficult to get right. The best-laid plans just don’t pan out. I’ve seen so many software development efforts bloat to 2X or 3X their original cost and time. Case in point, the original design of our renovation looks nothing like the current design and we’ve had to make difficult choices about what stays and what goes. Sometimes it’s just not worth the time and effort.

  2. Be decisive about what stays and what goes. Have the discipline to make a plan, try the plan, and revise the plan after thoughtful deliberation. Don’t go chasing after every shiny object that pops up or into your head. I’ve seen this play out in almost every software project that I’ve been involved in. The new shiny object sounds great. Just remember, it’s adding to the pile. It’s causing a distraction. It’s unproven. Only pivot if the reasons are justified and when the time is right—and don’t do it that often.

  3. Remember that time and money are limited. There’s precious little of it to go around. Every little change adds more time and money and you can end up getting killed by a thousand little cuts. Two weeks is a lifetime in a startup, and in a startup that’s two weeks of more cash burn. Even in our home renovation, the mere discussion of a change, an addition, or a “what about” has caused a delay. And that delay costs money, angst, and a few more grey hairs.

I know that I’ll get back into my house one day and that it’ll probably look great. But in the meantime, I continue to live surrounded by boxes and noise and chaos, spending my nights painstakingly choosing between polished nickel or Venetian bronze hardware, and hoping it’ll all be worth it. In my software world of Charli, we also have to make some hard choices about where to put our efforts, and we need to come to terms with cutting out scope creep.