“Scope creep” (or feature creep) is an insidious disease that kills more good startups than any other, especially high-tech ones, and yet most founders (who may be the cause) never even see it happening. “Scope creep” refers to a continuous flow of change requests after a project has begun that are typically not necessary for the successful launch of the product. While they are usually requested by well-meaning executives, they frequently result in a bloated project that collapses under its weight or is too late and too expensive for the intended customer.
The best product is a highly focused one that has the absolute minimum number of features to do the job. The solution? Clearly define the requirements upfront, document and approve specifications, and hire the best project manager possible. Here are five basic rules to live by:
- Document the requirements. A well-run requirements phase is your best chance to ensure that scope creep will be recognized when it happens, and it will. If a project manager has not documented the initial requirements, then there is no base. Without a base, it will be hard for people to realize that the stack is getting higher as time passes.
- Lock down the sign-off authority. In all documents, clearly define who must sign off on content and provide business-side feedback. If you are the sign-off, don’t be afraid to say “no.” Draw the line between need versus want. If the founders give into wants, the changes will likely grow to be too much, overwhelm the development process, and break the startup.
- Final features approval event. Make a visible event at the executive level out of the final specification approval, detailing features, costs, and time frames. Make sure everyone knows that changes after this point will have personal consequences, and will delay the product and increase the cost.
- Define milestones for cost review and sign-off. Milestones are for early warning because there is no recovery when you are out of time and money. Good milestones include completion of specifications, prototype, beta testing, final documentation, and final delivery.
- Implement and enforce a change process. Every project will require changes, so plan for them. The market changes, executives learn new things, customer demand changes, and technology changes. When a change request presents itself, document it, size it, and evaluate the tradeoffs of approving or disapproving the change.
Efforts to discourage scope creep are not designed to punish creativity. Instead, team members should be encouraged to regularly contribute to a change request database of additional features that they think would be interesting and useful.
Change requests must be visibly reviewed by executives frequently. If the features are interesting but not necessary for the initial release, they can be scheduled for further development on later versions of the project, whether it be new software, a car, or any other sort of device.
There’s always going to be something newer, something faster, something bigger, and the perfect product is a never-ending chase — but only if you allow it to be. Remember that in new product development, as in writing, addition by subtraction is the Golden Rule.
Scope creep causes your project to become slowly less elegant and very un-simple, which is a startup’s worst nightmare. Startups need to know when to stop chasing the leading edge, or they will be cursed to live and die on the bleeding edge.