How to Prevent Scope Creep

How to Prevent Scope Creep

Scope creep is a common enough term in the startup lexicon that near everyone understands fundamentally what it is. On day one you say, we’re building a fitness tracking application. On day 100, you’re building a fitness tracking application with bluetooth connections to all major fitness watches and photo-to-calorie AI mapping and a subscription video exercise content platform… and on, and on, and on. But you haven’t even launched the first bit. This is scope creep.

This maturation of your product and what it needs to be isn’t really evil. Its source is often just your desire to meet the needs of your customers, and that’s honestly a good thing. But, your ability to manage, prioritize and respond to these ideas has everything to do with how successful you’re going to be as an early stage startup.

As an early stage startup you almost always face the following:

  • A limited set of available resources (time, money and talent)
  • A large number of Important People’s Opinions (aka “My investor says this…”)
  • A race to product market fit and revenue that match your projections

Scope creep, even well-intentioned, is an oppositional force wherein your likelihood of success seesaws against failure, as all of the above truths smash against each new idea. The resulting outcome often includes investor updates with the dreaded statement, “We missed our target BUT it’s because we needed just this ONE MORE feature.” And it’s almost always one more, and one more, and one more.

How does scope creep kill your startup?

The process failure that results in scope creep is often one of the most insidious. You’re building. You’re releasing work. If you’re tracking velocity, things still look good. So, what’s wrong? Where scope creep becomes the biggest problem is:

  • Each new idea or feature steps farther and farther away from a core business metric that is your North Star. You should be focusing on performance in the market, but you’ve grown to believe that you can only perform if you add this Shiny New Thing. Take a closer look. How can you prove your new feature is directly related to your key metric?
  • The Important People’s Opinions keep you adding, or changing, before you release. There is not enough time in the world to launch a product that takes into account what everyone wants. You must create processes and exercises that limit input and prioritize effort accordingly.
  • You have grown defensive in the belief that your MVP idea wasn’t enough, and therefore it’s only going to succeed if you add Feature X or Feature Y. In this, the affliction is most often your own fear – you’ve lost faith that your original go-to-market plan has product market fit. The correction? Before you build the next feature, sell the next feature. If you decide to add, before establishing at scale whether the feature matters, you’ll fall into this trap again and again.

An MVP is the answer… but it’s not just jargon.

So, yes, an MVP is of course the answer to scope creep. But… that’s a term as fundamentally understood as scope creep is. By this point almost everyone knows what a minimum viable product is. Yet, in practice, early stage founders (again, with great intentions) often don’t quite understand how their actions allow for creep and for minimum to become… not quite so minimum after all.

What’s a real MVP then? It is not ‘a wireframe-y version of my product that doesn’t quite do what I want and I’m embarrassed by’ – though if you ask around that’s the answer you’ll often get. Instead, an MVP is a product built to a point of release by continuously prioritizing only the next most important thing, and the next riskiest assumption. And to get that right? You MUST be aligned and clear on what those things are before building. This means an MVP is a way to make each decision matter, not a thing you’re going to complete and release.

YCombinator explains this well:

“An MVP is a process that you repeat over and over again: Identify your riskiest assumption, find the smallest possible experiment to test that assumption, and use the results of the experiment to course correct.

When you build a product, you make many assumptions. You assume you know what users are looking for, how the design should work, what marketing strategy to use, what architecture will work most efficiently, which monetization strategy will make it sustainable, and which laws and regulations you have to comply with. No matter how good you are, some of your assumptions will be wrong. The problem is, you don't know which ones.1

In a post-mortem of more than 100 startups, CB Insights found that the number one cause of startup failure (42% of the time) was “no market need." Nearly half of these startups spent months or even years building a product before they found out that they were wrong in their most central assumption: that someone was interested in that product in the first place.“

How do we fight scope creep at Studio?

When we help build products for early stage founders at Studio, scope creep is often at the top of our mind. Across hundreds of projects we’ve seen all the variables that can yield creep in projects, and our kickoff, prioritization and project management processes are all designed to keep projects effectively operating an MVP process. So, how do we do this?

  1. Establish problem statements and user journeys at the earliest opportunity that distill a potential product's place in the market with a solid understanding of user needs. At the heart of every MVP is a problem that the product solves for a customer, and from day one our goal is to validate yours.
  2. Interview and interact with customers to establish truth and to begin resolving the highest potential risk for any product before a single feature is built. We are experts in the crafting of non-leading customer interview processes to truly get to the source of whether you have product market fit.
  3. Move from strategy and product design into development with sprints, rapidly prioritizing high impact features that represent a product’s unique value, and not overbuilding features that can often come later. How often have you seen someone build a cancellation flow before you’ve sold your first subscription? We fight for only the features you need to mitigate risk, and succeed in your North Star metric.
  4. Work with founders and departmental leaders to create roadmaps where upcoming features are transparently prioritized, judged according to their impact and openly communicated. Giving you fuel to keep your investors and interested parties aligned, and not steering from the back seat.
  5. We associate work in work management tools with those assumptions, and priorities, at this point redubbed as ‘epics’ or product “problems to solve”, all to keep a trackable system of how much of your team’s development effort and output is spent on each problem.

Scope creep is a curable disease, but it is not always simple.

As with most things in business building, you might hope that scope creep had a one-and-done solve. I started doing X thing, and suddenly I never have to worry about scope creep again. It is never that simple. Scope creep, pun intended, creeps in… from external sources, internal sources, emotions like fear and worry, even sales and customers can have an outsized weight on imposing a belief that you need to build a certain feature.

However, there are solutions – and they become easier and easier to replicate with the support of a team that has established practices to keep startups operating creep-free. If you feel like your product is suffering from scope creep and needs support from a team to move back to high impact, high performance prioritized development, contact Studio now.

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