The Death of Scope Creep: Agile Project Management

Scope Management | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Scope creep spelt out in colourful wooden blocks on a white background

A single word, adaptability, summarises the advantages of agile project management in the shortest, most direct way possible. Organisations that adopt agility – that equip themselves to adapt – are better prepared to adapt to frequent market developments and customer needs in a timely fashion.

However, in my experience, the flexibility of agile can be a double-edged sword. When you have far too much latitude without explicit definitions, scope creep rears its ugly head. And if you don't control scope creep, you'll end up with weary team members, unhappy customers and a venture that's gone off track!

What drives scope creep in agile projects? And more importantly, how can you prevent it from endangering your projects? Keep reading to find out.

What Does Scope Creep Look Like, and How Can You Spot It?

Scope creep occurs when the needs, objectives or goals of a project shift far beyond what's originally promised. Whenever this shift occurs, the project is no longer strictly outlined. And even worse, the boundaries of obligations – and eventually finalisation – become hazy.

Knowing what scope creep looks like only helps if you know how to spot it, and there are several ways to do so. Perhaps you're introducing minor things more gradually. Perhaps deadlines are skipped. Missed deadlines can cause members of the team to misunderstand their duties and obligations. Your business analyst would also be less directly engaged.

If you recognise such signs, scope creep is likely endangering your project.

What Is Agile Project Management Scope Creep?

In agile project management, scope creep generally refers to regularly occurring but unapproved and unplanned changes that detrimentally impact project limits. Generally, in practice, such scenarios mean you're constantly implementing changes without considering how the project is affected.

How can you recognise that dynamic? Well, scope creep most commonly manifests with the addition of new product features and services. And it especially occurs when such additions are done without regard for the effect on other project limitations (e.g., time, budget, personnel, quality, safety, security, etc.).

For example, many of us, including me, are probably aware of the triple constraint concept in project management; if the range of a project changes, it may affect the amount of time and/or affordability. If the effect on time and budget is not considered, quality suffers. And that's how you get scope creep in agile project management.

How to Avoid the Agile Flexibility Causing Scope Creep

To avoid the scope creep that comes with the flexibility required with agility, create your change control process using a Kanban board. Unchecked flexibility can eventually result in scope creep and divert the project from its original plan. Even if your scope is flexible, remain constant with your plan.

How? Use backlog grooming, also known as SCRUM refinement. This important activity is sometimes overlooked.

Backlog grooming should be done once every sprint and entails the following:

  • Adding criteria, context, urgency, estimates, or narrative elements to backlog items prior to pushing them for production in a cycle.
  • Deleting unnecessary items which no longer offer meaning to the project.
  • Harmonising objectives with the vision to sustain a good scope.

Taking these steps is crucial for minimising – or preventing – scope creep. Ultimately, backlog grooming allows teams to expedite sprint planning and improve the allocation and decomposition of work. The process essentially enables an effective change management system to take effect while maintaining regulated flexibility.

Asian woman presenting to four colleagues in front of a whiteboard with coloured sticky notes.

Involve All Members of the Project Team and Mitigate the Causes of Scope Creep

To avoid scope creep, get everyone on the team involved. That means, even when your stakeholders are pleased, don't forget to ensure that your developers are pleased as well. Inform them about the change management process and how it will affect them. They must be guardians, keepers of the scope of the project, rather than change makers.

Also keep in mind that project team members, at least in my experience, like to assist and may agree to make big changes without going through the change management procedure.

To avoid that, clarify that everyone should not agree to make changes unless authorised to do so to avoid disrupting the project schedule and potentially creating scope creep. Any team member wishing to assist stakeholders should describe the change control procedure and volunteer to help in recording the change.

Why is being so vigilant important? That's an easy question to answer: scope creep is a serious issue in agile projects, particularly when the project manager, teams and partners do not appreciate the effect that changes might have on the workforce, budget and timeline. Luckily, if you're explicit about the original scope of the project and properly manage changes to your project plan throughout the project lifespan, scope creep is unlikely to be a major problem.

But to be sure, you'll still want an effective project management system that's up to the challenge, so use change management tools that allow you to upload new changes and instantaneously evaluate those changes. As the project manager, you can prioritise these changes and allocate the task to team members using a solution such as ProjectManager. Then, once a change is authorised, somebody can get to work on it right away.

Implement Change Management Procedures

What occurs when someone tries to make changes? In my experience, it is naive to believe that nothing will change. But not all change is bad. Structured, regulated and approved change in your projects is everything you need to avoid scope creep.

To cultivate such change, you'll want to use a change management strategy to describe the change control processes which must be implemented when the project plan must be updated. It's also critical to get a risk management procedure in place that specifies how frequently your project's overall health will be assessed. That step allows you to keep records of risks, such as scope creep.

And the process doesn't have to be daunting – a change management procedure is simple. Basically, somebody proposes a change via a proposal which is then examined, accepted or denied. If accepted, the change is included in the project plan. Using the change management features provided by your project management tool will make this process easier.

Ultimately, establishing the corrective actions entails considering who will evaluate and approve changes because, without a method, change just occurs.

Avoiding LAST-MINUTE Changes

Finally, to avoid scope creep, avoid any last-minute changes. Start by determining the scope of your project based on the needs of your stakeholders. Then, using a work breakdown structure (WBS), generate a thorough work plan. The work plan is the consequence of recognising what your project will deliver. In the plan, include all needs and how you'll meet them in the shape of activities, events and objectives.

To guarantee that you haven't overlooked anything, bridge your project timeline with your needs management process.

Conclusion & Takeaway

Whatever the project, changing needs are viewed as planning failures in conventional project management. Thus, your original planning step must be solid as a rock – especially if you want to avoid scope creep. If you ignore scope creep and don't try to mitigate it from occurring in the first place, you may lead your project to fail – and nobody wants that!

How do you control the scope of your projects?

Duncan Haughey is a project manager with decades of experience in private organisations, both large and small.

Recommended read: How Should the Project Manager Deal with Scope Creep?, by Kuntal Thakore.


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