Rope Your Scope: Reining in Scope Creep (Part II)

By Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener

Last time, I told the story of a team that experienced a breakthrough after clarifying the scope of a stalled project. Noting that scope creep—the unrestrained expansion of requirements as the project proceeds—is cited as one of the top project risks, I promised to describe some of the good practices that help product partners manage product scope in a disciplined way. With clients, I always stress the importance of developing a product vision, identifying goals and objectives for the product, and clarifying the product partners’ value considerations very early in the project before development proceeds. Let’s look at ways to do that.

Your Product Vision

The product vision is the high-level, long-term concept of the product. The ideal vision is concise, compelling, cohesive, and visual. It describes three things: what you need to build (the product’s purpose), for whom you’re building it (who derives value from it), and how it differs from what now exists (its market differentiators and benefits). The vision sets the overall context for the project and explains the product’s alignment with your organization’s strategy.

In my experience, the best product visions are created in collaborative workshops. Using interactive, visual techniques helps get everyone involved. For example, I have teams create a “product box” using real boxes or simulate a box using two large posters. The idea isn’t to create actual packaging but to express ideas in a concrete way. On one poster, I may ask them to create the front of the box with the product name, image, and a slogan. The back of the box may list the product’s compelling features and target customers.

Other techniques include writing a headline for a fictional future newspaper, drawing metaphoric pictures of how the product will change its users’ world, and brainstorming to incrementally draft a vision based on an agreed-upon mental model.

The team will amplify the vision by defining the product’s goals (for example, “increase revenue”), and quantify the goals with objectives (“boost market share by 15 percent”). The vision, goals, and objectives give the context for reining in scope as you discover to deliver product needs. Requirements that align to the context are reined in, and requirements outside the context are removed from scope.

Partners and Their Value Considerations

The product delivers value by providing a fair return in exchange for time, money, goods, or services. Value is in the eyes of the beholder—different product partners have differing, conflicting, and overlapping considerations for achieving value. (Part 1 describes the product partners.)


Value considerations are variables the partners use to assess the product options (aka requirements). Classic value considerations address making, saving, and protecting revenue; other value considerations may reflect broader values. For example, partners from the customer realm might value users’ convenience, cost, or belonging to a community. Business partners might value strategic alignment, organizational readiness, competitive differentiation, cost savings, and the like. For technology partners, value considerations may include the cost to service the product, a desire to reuse an existing architecture, or the need to leverage the expertise of current staff.

Your goal is to determine which value considerations are the highest value for the time horizon you’re planning. This assessment helps clarify your scope.

For details on steps and tips on defining value considerations, see the recently recorded webinar “Got Value? A Value Model for Making Agile Product Decisions” sponsored by the PMI Agile CoP. You’ll find these practices applicable regardless of your development method.

The Nitty-Gritty

With your vision, goals, objectives, and value considerations defined, you’re ready to discover the scope of your next delivery. What we call the “structured conversation” is a practice of ongoing, systematic, and collaborative discovery of product options across “7 Product Dimensions” of your product. (For more about this approach, see “Strengthen Your Discovery Muscle.”)

When you use choose among proposed product options based on value considerations, you manage scope in a systematic way and respond intelligently to changes. Recall the client I mentioned last time—a maker of robotic medical devices. We held a facilitated workshop to plan the next release (to be delivered in three months) of a software application to operate the devices.

During the workshop, I helped the team create a rank-order list of value considerations. Their final list—six items—represented a combination of partners’ value considerations: reduced operator error, enhanced communication between requestors and operators, alignment to the publicly shared vision, increased request throughput, reduced IT support burden, and increased speed of use.

The top value considerations addressed an immediate, serious concern: the robotics operators’ need to reduce operational errors that caused downtime, destroying biological material and ruining results. (In Part I, I described how the team got unstuck when they realized their highest value in this release was to support these users. It’s amazing how a visual aid—in this case, posts in the shape of people placed in a hierarchy on a wall—can quickly help teams “see” their way forward.)

Next, the team pulled “chunky” stories from the backlog and roughed out new ideas. They then used the structured conversation to analyze the product’s 7 Product Dimensions and filter their options for those that aligned with their value considerations.

Everyone “worked the wall,” using the Options Board to document the work (you can download an Options Board Kit here.

A key enabler was using a combination of text and visual models on the Options Board to speed up their conversations and ensure they reached a shared understanding. For this team, sketches of scope-level user role maps, a context diagram, a conceptual data model, a state diagram, and key glossary terms helped streamline their conversations and clarify scope.

With a group of options described, it was time to choose the highest-value features to develop in the next three months. The product champion, with team input, picked features aligned with the top six value considerations. Because the team had already worked through the most important value considerations for this delivery cycle, it was quick work to narrow the list of possible features.

We still needed to further rein in scope. For 45 minutes, I had the team members focus on the key “whos” and “what” for their time scope. They created a persona (a written description of a typical user’s background, including relevant details such as needs and goals) of the high-value users (the robotics operators) they were targeting in this release. They also defined a release theme to further help them focus.

Next, we returned to the Options Board. We moved the chosen features onto a planning wall and used 3×5 cards to define acceptance criteria for each feature to confirm their understanding of a successful release. We then used the “Decide How to Decide” pattern to collaboratively reach closure on the release scope we had agreed to.

Take the Reins

Reining in product scope requires discipline and continual attention. Rarely is product scope static. Review, reassess, and revise scope as you deliver product increments, and validate actual versus anticipated results. Expect healthy changes in scope as you discover and deliver your product, and make it your goal to learn, explore, and decide.

This takes courage and action.

Revisit partners’ value considerations at each planning horizon. Act as a facilitator, helping product partners collaborate to explore and evaluate product options. Use visual analysis models to clarify scope, and engage and involve the partners. Ensure product needs—the “means”—align with the “ends.” Jettison features that don’t serve those ends. Incorporate mechanisms and attitudes that invite healthy scope change. Apply clear and transparent decision rules to rein in scope. These scope management actions attend to the needs of the partners, sustain healthy and collaborative relationships, and result in products that deliver business value.

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