March 26, 2019

Just Say No and 4 Other Ways to Prevent Project Scope Creep

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Do you feel like the project you’re working on will never end?
Do customers keep asking for new features and capabilities?
Do you feel like your burndown charts are burning up?

You may be experiencing scope creep. Scope creep is the tendency for projects to expand, go over budget, and never fully deliver because the customer or the product owners add new requests that distract from the main goal.

Scope creep turns a simple MVP into a year-long project with no end in sight.

Don’t talk to your doctor. She probably can’t help, unless she’s also a skilled project manager. Many teams have resigned themselves to scope creep as a fact of life. But we can reduce scope creep. We may never eradicate scope creep, but we can treat the symptoms.

Avoiding the ever-expanding project requires project management skills. To keep your projects manageable, you must be able to prioritize, publish, visualize, assign, and say no. These five steps and stubborn adherence to your MVP plan are the keys to minimizing scope creep.

Keep in mind that the following steps require both parties—the customer and the product team—to be honest with one another about their desired outcomes, capabilities, resources, and expectations. Only by being honest about expectations and abilities can the project succeed on time and under budget.

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1. Prioritize tasks

Whether your client is a customer or another department within your company, you must decide on the items that are most important to the product and which features can wait.

Once you decide on the most important features, you can build a mock-up of what the minimally viable product (MVP) should be able to do. Think about whether each feature/task/work item must exist for the product to work. If it’s not a must-have, then it can wait.

Again, honesty and trust are paramount in this step of the process. Everyone must be willing to separate wants from needs, and everyone must listen to the experts as to which items are necessary. The user experience team, the developers, the customer, and the project manager all have to work together to define the most important tasks. Otherwise the product could be very pretty but not at all functional, or it could be highly functional but only accessible by another software developer. Strive for balance in your MVP.

2. Publish the MVP plan

Write the plan down. Make a poster. Write it on the wall in permanent marker. A published plan is a permanent plan.

You’ll use your published plan as a reference point for later conversations, so the plan should be visible for all stakeholders. Hand out copies of the plan during meetings, and when someone asks for a new feature or suddenly realizes the project is missing an important piece, you can refer back to the plan. Blame the plan if you have to delay a request. Make the MVP the bad guy here.

Repeat after me: “I want to do this immediately, but the MVP won’t allow it.”

Every task, feature, upgrade and request that isn’t covered in your published plan should go into a backlog for future sprints and projects. There is endless time to upgrade the product once it’s complete, but it’s not an upgrade if the product doesn’t exist in the first place. Stick to the plan.

3. Visualize tasks in a project management tool

Because organizing the MVP in a project management tool may be the most familiar step in the process, it’s also the most susceptible to scope creep. The project manager must ensure that the tasks outlined in the project management tool follow the published MVP plan.

Your project management tool should be a representation of reality, not a dream board.

Each card gets a task, and each task gets a card. Don’t fall into the trap of hiding tasks within tasks, or using checklists to expand individual tasks. Your project management tool should be a representation of reality, not a dream board.

Give team members access to the project management tool, but don’t give up responsibility for it to the contributors. The project manager owns the plan’s organization in the project management software, and they ultimately own whether the project sticks to the published plan. Build time into your week to review the tasks. Pull off-plan tasks off the board and notify the appropriate employee—gently—of their MVP responsibilities.

4. Assign tasks according to actual capacity

It’s tempting to get caught up in the vanity of big numbers. Whether your team tracks hours worked, tasks completed, or scrum points, overestimating your capacity or stacking the deck to impress the client is a recipe for disappointment.

Inflating your stats, even on items that “don’t matter,” equates to lying to the client, and yourself. And, hello? If the stats don’t matter, then why are you tracking them anyway?

As the project manager, you’re in charge of the project management tool, but you’re also in charge of balancing the workload. Work with employees to ensure that they have enough tasks to keep them busy, but not so many that they sacrifice quality to get everything completed.

5. Just say no

Or at least, “not now.” Every new request, even if it’s “just” changing the text on a page or moving a field on the screen, has to go into the project management tool as a task. Coach your team members with phrases like

  • No.
  • I’ll add it to the queue.
  • This doesn’t fit the MVP, but I’ll add it as a task to look at in another sprint.
  • The MVP won’t allow it.
  • I want to do this for you, but the budget won’t allow it.

Most scope creep happens when people say yes to little changes. Enough little changes and you have an entirely different product. Support your team members when they say no to expansion tasks and one-offs.

Combat Scope Creep for The Good of All

In the end, saying no to creeping tasks is good customer service. Agreeing to every possible change will bloat the project, overuse resources, and blast deadlines. Be good to yourself, your team, and your client by stubbornly sticking to your original plan.

We can’t help you learn to say no to new features, but we can help you find the right project management tool for the kinds of projects you do. Whether you need Kanban, GANTT, burndown, calendar, or waterfall views, our Technology Advisors can recommend the best project management tools for your team. Give us a call at 877.822.9526, or contact us today.