What is "scope creep" - and how do you become a real scope creep buster?

Scope creep is when a project's scope gradually expands like a monster that slowly but surely sneaks up on you. Learn how to handle and combat this eerie phenomenon.

Illustration of scope creep

Kristian Vesterbo Brønner




min read

October 30, 2023

Halloween is upon us, and it's darn scary! 🎃

It's the time when witches, ghosts, and other dark forces emerge to scare the life out of us. As a product manager, I can't think of anything scarier than "scope creep".

Everyone who has worked with some form of product development is familiar with the nearly inevitable situation where an otherwise well-defined scope suddenly changes. It's a frustrating situation, almost regardless of your role in a development team, and the further we are into the development of the product, the scarier scope creep becomes.

There can be many reasons for scope creep to arise, but it's our ability to handle the situation that defines its impact on our development flow.

Just as ghosts are handled by our heroes in the iconic Ghostbusters movie, we too can prepare to handle a spooky scope creep situation. The question is, are you ready to become the next Scope Creep Buster?

What is Scope Creep?

Scope Creep, also known as focus creep, feature creep, or kitchen sink syndrome, has many names. Still, they all share the fact that it is an uncontrolled expansion of a product's scope after product implementation has begun. Scope creep can have a significant impact on the development process. For example, it can mean we lose momentum and need to change many of the things that have already been implemented.

Of course, sudden changes also affect schedules, budgets, and even the necessary skills needed to develop the product. And in the end, it can be a massive blow to a development team that loses engagement and motivation. "It all might be irrelevant since it'll probably change again soon!", whispers are heard in the corners.

There can be countless reasons for scope creep to arise during product development since it's typically driven by the context you're in. Below are some symptoms I've encountered during product development. Amazingly, many of them relate to something quite basic – and yet so challenging – namely our ability to communicate.

Poor communication with the customer

One of the absolute key elements to ensure our product's success is our ability to communicate with our customers. Good communication between the product team and the customers is crucial to ensuring the product we develop meets the customer's needs.

Although we often communicate with our customers, there can still be instances where the actual need has been misunderstood. This might be because we're not good at deciphering what's really being said, or because we only hear what we want to hear. Or we ask the wrong questions, leaving the customer unclear in their communication about what the actual need is that should be met. Whatever the case, reality sneaks up on us when we realize we aren't meeting our customers' actual needs.

Poor communication with stakeholders

If there isn't good communication established between the stakeholders who have a stake in the product we're trying to develop, it can result in challenges. This issue is also referred to as a 'stakeholder communication gap'. The challenge arises when stakeholders are a dependency to ensure the development flow, which means that poorly established communication can cause a bottleneck at the stakeholders.

Self-made Scope Creep

Last but not least, it's also essential to look inward, as product teams can also be to blame for their scope creep woes. Sometimes development teams scope creep their development by adding extra scope to their tasks on their own. "Wouldn't it be cool if we added this new technology?" It could be due to personal interest, perhaps because of curiosity about new technologies or to impress customers.

It could also be the product team's inability to collect and actively work with validated hypotheses to uncover the needs customers have.

How to avoid scope creep

But what do you do when scope creep sneaks up as if it were a ghost in the night's darkness? And how do you minimize its impact on our development process? Here are some suggestions on how you can reduce the risk of scope creep.

Communication and stakeholder management

Effective communication is key to minimizing scope creep. Keep regular contact with customers and stakeholders to ensure their needs and expectations are clearly understood. This helps identify potential changes early in the process so they can be tackled proactively.

Make sure to establish a strategic foundation for ongoing customer involvement through experiments that can confirm or disprove your biggest question marks. It can also be beneficial to create a stakeholder map, which shows who you need to actively involve, monitor, or simply keep informed.

I recommend this article, which provides a good indication of how to work with different types of stakeholders: How to safely navigate through the explosive stakeholder minefield

Change management process

Establish a change management process where all proposed changes are evaluated, documented, and prioritized against items that are currently at the top of the backlog before they are implemented. This should include an assessment of how the change affects the project's scope, schedule, and budget.

Prioritizing changes

Not all changes are equally important. Prioritize changes based on their impact on the project's goals and desired value. It helps focus on the most crucial changes, avoiding less significant additions. Use your stakeholders, customers, and team members to assess the change's priority.

Assess risks

Examine the extent of the change carefully. Some changes may be minor and can be implemented without significant delays or costs, while others may require a complete overhaul. It's only when we don't address and communicate the risks of the change that we jeopardize our objectives.

Negotiation and compromise

When scope creep arises, be prepared for negotiations. Discuss change proposals and find solutions that meet both customer and stakeholder needs and our product goals. Be aware that this negotiation can be a tough discipline. Make sure to bring good arguments to the conversation and support them with data and empirical evidence. In the end, insights and data enable us to make a decision on a solid basis. Remember that sometimes you just have to meet in the middle to ensure progress.

Document everything

Keep a close track of all changes, discussions, and decisions. This includes new product items on the backlog and their priority, emails, and formal change requests. Comprehensive documentation provides transparency and traceability. Documentation will undoubtedly be invaluable when clarifying or justifying specific decisions and establishing a solid foundation for future decisions.

See Opportunities and Approach Scope Creep Positively

It's never entirely easy to handle sudden changes, especially when they have implications for your work. However, we can determine how we respond when scope creep arises during product development. We can view it as an opportunity for positive change, a chance to uncover new opportunities for value creation. As long as we ensure minimal impact on our momentum and validate changes against our objectives, we can certainly treat sudden shifts as an exciting opportunity to enhance our product.


Scope creep is almost inevitable when working on product development. The more complex our product, the greater the likelihood of scope creep. But, like many other situations, it's about how we respond.

With the introduced initiatives, I hope you're ready for the next time you face a daunting scope creep situation.

And once you've tackled the situation with minimal impact on your development flow, you can proudly quote Bill Murray from the legendary Ghostbusters movie:

"We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!" 👻

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