Agile Scope Management: 4 Causes of Scope Creep and How to Combat Them

Thulazshini Tamilchelvan
Aug 29 · 7 min read

If we were to sum up the benefits of agile project management in one word, it’s flexibility.

By going agile, companies are able to respond to constant market changes and customer demands in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, agile’s flexibility is a double-edged sword, whereby too much leeway without clear definition invites scope creep.

And when you fail to manage scope creep, you’re left with exhausted team members, frustrated stakeholders, and a project that’s way off from its initial plan!

Continue reading to identify what causes scope creep in agile projects and how you can prevent it from jeopardizing your projects.


Scope Definition and the Impact of Scope Creep in Agile Project Management

In the world of project management, scope outlines the features or requirements to be accomplished and the resources needed to deliver them successfully within set deadlines.

Scope can make or break a project. It’s critical that you clearly define scope from the beginning. In agile-speak, scope definition is demonstrated as user stories — also known as high-level requirements — in the product backlog.

These user stories are prioritized based on factors like business value, complexity, and cost; and worked upon incrementally in sprints.

Following scope verification — when the sprint outcome is reviewed and accepted by stakeholders — the development team can then move on to complete other items from the backlog.

Though agile welcomes changes to requirements in each iteration, uncontrolled flexibility can sometimes spiral into scope creep, bloating a project beyond its initial defined plan.

This is where the real nightmare begins! From exhausted team members scrambling to manage sudden scope changes to dealing with stakeholders’ volatile requests, you’ll be facing them all.

Worse still, the project (that’s different what was initially planned) can go over budget and eventually be released after its deadline.


Causes of Scope Creep and Plans to Mitigate Them

It’s high time that you dived deep to identify the causes of scope creep and nip them in the bud before they wreak havoc in your agile projects.

Cause #1: Unrefined Product Backlog

As stated earlier, the product backlog is feature requests are stored until it’s time for development. From user stories to bug fixes and even ideas for future development, a good product backlog is aligned with your product vision and business goals.

But wait, don’t forget these two cardinal rules of managing a product backlog:

  1. Not all items in the backlog are developed.
  2. Those chosen are developed incrementally based on their level of priority.

Problems happen when product owners and project managers fail to comply with the rules, resulting in an ungroomed product backlog. Some POs may expect all items in the backlog to be developed.

While others may simply bump newly added items up the backlog without reprioritization. In the end, the development team is pressured to deliver all items in the backlog with very limited time and resources.

And voila, scope creep is “successfully” introduced into projects!

Plan #1: Refine Backlog Items Based on Your Product Vision

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

First things first, POs must never lose sight of the product vision and business goals. And if you’re the PM, the duty to define crucial project deliverables based on the product roadmap falls under your purview. Ask yourself these questions to ensure that the items in the product backlog accurately contribute to the product vision:

  • How does the product create value for customers?
  • What problems are the product trying to solve?
  • What are the unique features of the product to successfully solve problems?
  • Who are the targeted users for the product?
  • What is the current industry practice to solve those problems?
  • Is there room for future product development?

Next, regularly refine the backlog by removing items that are irrelevant, creating new items based on updated customer feedback, and reprioritizing items. This way, only high-quality requirements are developed with each sprint cycle.


Cause #2: Undefined Project Specification

Undefined project specification is another contributor to scope creep. Without it, teams are unclear on what needs to be developed and delivered.

Worse still, they may end up building a product that lacks the core functionalities needed to provide value to customers. This means that the team needs to go back to the drawing board to cook up a solution, pronto!

Plan #2: Make Use of a Statement of Work

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Make use of a Statement of Work (SoW) to define the deliverables that will be worked on incrementally and iteratively. But since product requirements are always evolving in the agile world, include the following in your SoW:

  • Product goals and objectives
  • Acceptance criteria for project deliverables
  • Incremental delivery timeline
  • Prioritization of product requirements
  • Tasks and roles involved to accomplish deliverables
  • Pricing model
  • Additional resource cost (e.g. license, tools)

Also, it’s imperative that you specify what the scope doesn’t cover. This ensures that your team has a better understanding of the sprint goal and can then deliver high-quality features. They’re also not caught up trying to gold-plate the project.


Cause #3: Poor Task Prioritization

Once you’ve defined the project specification, you can start working with your teams by detailing the necessary tasks that contribute towards project completion.

But not all tasks are created equal; some tasks must be completed first before your team can proceed with the others. This sequential workflow is known as dependencies and failure to follow them can hinder impactful project progress.

With poor task prioritization, teams are also unaware how their assigned tasks contribute to the project’s big picture via collaborative workflow. And this is detrimental, as they can inevitably become the bottleneck to other teams.

Plan #3: Leverage Task Prioritization Tools

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

As a project manager, you know how crucial prioritization is to project success. With logical task management, your teams can work on the features that deliver the most value to customers.

Always include your team during task planning to ensure that they truly understand the project workflow before they start developing the product.

Also leverage task prioritization methods like a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and Gantt chart to guide your team towards successful project completion.

The best part is that these tools exist as apps that can be easily integrated into your existing agile project management system like Jira.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Jira Gantt Charts


Cause #4: Lack of Internal and External Communication

Communication is key for a successful project management, and its breakdown can send your project spiraling into uncontrollable scope creep.

Internal communication with your team members helps keep you updated on any product development issue. Unfortunately, team members may not be forthcoming about the impediments that they’re facing.

In some cases, they may under- or overestimate their bandwidth and still try to muddle through the sprint cycle.

The same goes for external communication with stakeholders. Some of them have a hands-off approach and are only minimally involved in project development.

This is a blocker for project progress, especially when their feedback on deliverables is delayed. Worst-case scenario, they’ll turn up out of the blue, requesting minor tweaks due to a “change in direction.”

Read More: Communication Failures and How They Cause Scope Creep

Plan #4: Develop a Strategic Communication Plan

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Implement a strategic communication plan to transparently collaborate with your stakeholders and team members on project progress.

When you’re dealing with your team, it’s best to follow the agile principle of having a face-to-face conversation with them.

This is why stand-up meetings are important in agile projects! Everyone is in the loop about the latest project development and issues can be addressed swiftly.

When it comes to an external communication plan for your stakeholders, detail what project aspects to discuss, how often to discuss them, and what communication channels to use.

For example, you may have a Skype conversation with your client every Monday to discuss the project progress and any issues that the team faced during development.

Be realistic about what your team can and cannot deliver this time around. Not only that, emphasize to your stakeholders their role in project success and encourage their participation.

And if there are feature refinements that your team can’t handle now, you can always convert them into opportunities for future product development.

Your team will not be burdened with sudden scope creep and your stakeholders will be happy too. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!


Managing Scope Creep in Agile Project Management

While it’s true that agile project management welcomes changing requirements, even late in development, always keep an eye out for scope creep.

Follow the plans above, and you too can successfully guarantee flexibility in your agile projects without unnecessary scope changes.

And as always, share with us your own tactics for combating agile scope creep!

Project Managers’ Planet

Your one-stop resource for everything related to project management.

Thulazshini Tamilchelvan

Written by

When I’m not writing, I rely on my art and pictures to paint my thousand words.

Project Managers’ Planet

Your one-stop resource for everything related to project management.

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