Scope Creep: Getting a Handle On It, Even with Agile

No matter how long you’ve been working in tech, at some point you’ve probably encountered a project that grew larger and more complex than originally planned: Specs changed, new requirements were added, your workload increased, and the team faced increased pressure to meet deadlines.

This phenomenon is called “scope creep” and it’s the bane of everyone involved, from project managers to developers and everyone in-between. 

Despite increased awareness of the issue, and modern processes such as Agile and scrum designed to better manage changes, scope creep remains prevalent. According to PMI’s 2018 project management survey, 52 percent of projects experienced scope creep, which was nearly a 10 percent increase from five years prior.

How does scope creep occur and how can you better manage it? Let’s examine the issue.

What Causes Scope Creep?

Scope creep occurs when there’s an uncontrolled change to the scope of a project without adjustments to time, cost, and resources. In layman’s terms: You get more work without extra time or help to complete it.

Many times, the scope changes because new requirements are added, client or market needs shift, or technology changes. But oftentimes, there’s a lack of clarity during the planning phase. In fact, clarity of scope is the biggest challenge that project managers in enterprise organizations face.

“Scope creep can often happen when organization leaders don’t allow for adequate up-front planning,” according to Stephen Townsend, director of Network Programs at Project Management Institute. “Because there’s a bias towards starting work as quickly as possible, the planning period might get cut short. As a result, things that should have been identified early in the process will become known further down the path. Trying to accommodate small changes as one-offs might work at first, but a series of one-offs can quickly build into schedule delays and cost overruns.”

Agile is Not Immune to the Problem

While it may be easy to see how scope creep happens in traditional development structures, it shouldn’t be an issue in Agile development. Or should it? Agile is meant to embrace change and leave room for scope adjustments in different sprints. Still, some believe scope creep can arise despite these steps.

“You’re going to hear a lot of people say you can’t have scope creep in Agile, but in my opinion that’s not an accurate statement,” said Nick McConnell, director of web solutions at Dataprise. “Yes, Agile allows you to introduce new requirements late in the game and the ability to swap in and swap out, but a lot [of] times you’ll get later in a project and stuff you already developed, someone will come in and want to add new requirements to that or want to replace it altogether.

“So even though you did an Agile approach with the thing you developed in an earlier cycle, you can still inject scope creep by touching that much later in the game.”

McConnell added that scope creep can also occur in Agile when a smaller story is replaced with a much larger one, which can affect budget and timeline.

Change Management is Key

You can’t always prevent scope creep, but you can mitigate it. It starts with comprehensive up-front planning. Townsend says you can build some leeway into timelines and contingency funds to account for requirement changes. But it’s also important to have a change management process.

“For more significant changes, the team should use a formal change control process that engages executive leaders in approving the new requirements and the resources needed to deliver them,” Townsend explained.

Take Small Steps to Control Scope

Another way to manage scope is breaking projects into smaller chunks, which allows for a more focused approach. While this is part of the basis for Agile development, it can also be applied to Waterfall methodology.

“Rather than trying to do one project that does everything soup to nuts, you phase it out and do a very high level first phase, which is really that discovery phase, which is really getting to know the organization and know the business and some of their pain points up front, and lay out a roadmap for the functions and features, and then you can prioritize appropriately to fit within the timeline and budget,” McConnell said.

Communicate from Bottom Up

While the project manager or scrum master is responsible for managing scope creep, the burden doesn’t just fall on his or her shoulders. Team members often notice scope creep first.

“The people who are in the weeds and doing the work—writing up the requirements and going through use cases—they’re the people who are going to recognize it first because they have direct interaction with the subject matter expert from the customer on that particular module or function,” McConnell said. “So the biggest thing for them is to communicate that up to the project manager or scrum master.”

Ultimately, you may not be able to prevent scope creep in every project, but proper planning, strategy, and communication can minimize it. No matter what your role, you play a part in helping control it.

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