How to Deal with Out-of-Control Requirements

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Summary:

Scope creep, also known as feature creep, is a common project killer. It is critical for a project manager to know how to effectively manage this situation when it occurs. In this article, Darren Levy explains how to tackle scope creep in ten easy-to-follow steps.

For a project manager or business systems analyst, it's customary to meet with a project to obtain project requirements signoff. However, what invariably happens is the customer deciding they need a new set of features outside the scope of the current requirements document. This dilemma, known as "scope creep" or "feature creep" is a common project killer, and it is critical for a project manager to know how to effectively manage this situation when it occurs.

According to the 2004 Chaos report by the The Standish Group, over 68% of large software projects end up failing to fully meet the needs of their customers or never reaching completion. Out of these failed projects, over 80% of them occur because of runaway requirements (Scope Creep). Because of these staggering numbers, later in the article I will provide 10 useful guidelines to ward off scope creep, to give your project a better chance for success.

What is Scope Creep?
Before jumping into the impacts and treatment of Scope Creep, let’s first look at a definition. According to the recent 2007 Wikipedia, "Scope Creep refers to uncontrolled changes in a project scope for already approved projects–hence the project team drifts out of control from its original purpose."

So what are the impacts of Scope Creep? Looking at this definition, it's simple to surmise that "uncontrolled changes" would lead to project delays, but that's not the full extent. Runaway scope will also lead to out of control costs, frustration and dissent within the project team, degraded quality due to the tendency of rushing through the new functionality, and ultimately a cancelled project resulting from the budget or timeline becoming too unrealistic.

Hiring a project manager with a PMP (project management professional) designation or an MBA does certainly not guarantee success. It often takes a seasoned project manager with the experience and tenacity in dealing with difficult business owners who inadvertently derail their own projects.

While controlling scope creep is something often mastered with years of experience, the following ten best practices should be helpful in keeping your projects on track.

Tip 1) Perform a thorough requirements analysis. To easily identify scope creep, you first need to have a really good handle on what the requirements are. Make sure you have an organized requirements management document that includes a mission statement, a background statement that includes needs, the high level features, and as many detailed requirements as possible which all map back up to the features. By producing a rich and thorough set of requirements, you can get a clean baseline of what the system needs to do which can often mitigate any upfront scope creep.

Tip 2) Implement a solid Change Control Process Upfront. By implementing an enforcing a strong change control process, you are effectively putting a “gate” around your project requirements and preventing changes “through the back door”. By doing this, it adds a level of complexity for your customers and can discourage them from making changes. This is usually more beneficial in larger projects where scope creep could kill a project

Tip 3) Associating a cost of scope change. In many organizations, a sponsor has control over the development resources and may not quantify the cost of making changes. However, all changes that require work have a cost–both in terms of resource time and the delay of revenue or cost-savings in the delay. By knowing how to measure the cost of change and putting that in front of the customer, it's a great way of discouraging customers from freely making changes.

Tip 4) Don't say no, say "not yet". So lets

About the author

Darren Levy's picture Darren Levy

Darren Levy has been designing, building and deploying mission-critical software for over 15 years. He is the principal owner of GatherSpace.com and works as a senior project manager at a private firm.

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