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Avoiding hope and scope creep as a technical project manager

Scope creep and hope creep derail technical project managers. Learn about scope and hope creep’s effect on stakeholder management and process documentation.

May 6, 2024 • 4 Minute Read

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  • IT Ops
  • Software Development
  • Engineering Leadership
  • Business
  • Software Delivery Process

Everyone who has experienced scope creep knows how it can derail a project. But there is another, more subtle project killer: hope creep. This article explains scope and hope creep and offers simple but effective practices to help technical project managers and Scrum masters avoid them.

Table of contents

What is scope creep, and what causes it?

Scope creep occurs when a project’s deliverables grow beyond the original agreed-upon work. This usually creates frustration and low morale for developers, graphic designers, business analysts, and everyone on the project team. Because of this, scope creep is something all technical project managers (PMs) and Scrum masters (SMs) want to avoid.

Leadership sets unreasonable project objectives or project timelines

Sometimes scope creep occurs because a senior executive or project sponsor wants to cram in another feature without spending more money or delaying the project. 

For example, let’s say an Agile development team is in the middle of a sprint and the product owner or project sponsor tries to add a new feature without moving any work to a future sprint. Because the development team is already at capacity for the sprint, the new feature request will only lead to more work hours and a loss in trust in the Agile process. For a team in the midst of Agile transformation, this “WAgile” approach can be devastating.

Stakeholder management and engagement strategy isn't maintained well

Scope creep can also occur when PMs or Scrum masters want to maintain good relationships with key stakeholders. If a stakeholder makes what appears to be a minor request, for example, the project manager or Scrum master may agree to avoid disappointing them. 

This additional (and unanticipated) promise can overwhelm and annoy the development team, ultimately making them lose trust in the project manager’s ability to lead and manage projects. 

“Saying, ‘Sure, we can find some time to include this small feature’ to the project sponsor or key stakeholders keeps them happy and buys some political capital,” says Jake McFarland, Data Analytics Manager at Comcast. 

“The issue is that additional time and budget for the additional scope are almost never considered or are considered but not adjusted. They’re hoping that the team can adjust to the scope creep without actually planning for it.”

Stakeholder communication with technical teams is poor

Technical project managers’ desire to appease stakeholders can also lead to poor communication and contribute to scope creep. If a project falls behind schedule or exceeds its budget, the project manager or Scrum master may be timid about telling leadership and create challenges down the road.

What is hope creep in technical project management?

Hope creep occurs when a project is in trouble, but the technical project manager or Scrum master has hope the team will be able to catch up to the schedule and/or rein in spending before it gets out of control and anyone notices. 

When hope creep occurs, teams may experience watermelon status reporting. In other words, things look green on the outside and seem like they’re going well, but are actually red and in trouble.

This can make project managers feel anxious and produce disastrous results if a green status is not immediately recaptured. Unfortunately, quick recoveries almost never happen. Once hope sets in, teams make project decisions with only recovery in mind, which usually isn’t what’s best for the project. These decisions almost always come back to haunt project managers down the line.

The long-term consequences of hope creep for project managers

Project sponsors, executives, and stakeholders don’t like surprises. If someone tells them a project is on schedule and within budget when it isn’t, they’ll eventually find out the truth. When they do, they may feel betrayed. (This is similar to how developers feel when additional scope or requests are thrust upon their project.)

As leaders become frustrated and lose trust, project managers and Scrum masters may have a hard time reversing these sentiments. In the long run, this can limit the project manager to smaller and less important projects in the future and restrict opportunities for career advancement.

How to manage scope creep and hope creep for technical projects

Scope creep can whittle away at the relationship between project managers and development teams, while hope creep can whittle away at the relationship between project managers and senior leadership. What’s a technical project manager or Scrum master to do?

Create an agreement with key stakeholders to prevent scope creep

Nothing can guarantee scope creep or hope creep won’t occur throughout a project’s lifespan. However, technical project managers can create an agreement with the project’s sponsor to reduce the risk of these two project killers. 

Before a project begins, consider adding a line like this to your project charter:  

“[Project sponsor’s name] agrees to never add additional scope beyond what is already included in this charter, without additional resources. In return, [project manager’s name] agrees to report accurate status at all times, even when those reports are negative.”

This mutual, written agreement can reduce the likelihood of unanticipated requests creeping up on developers. Process documentation will also be the foundation of trust between the sponsor and project manager. Once both parties are aware of the dangers, they can work together to avoid them.

Accommodate added scope with change management practices

But what if scope or hope creep begins to surface once a project is already underway?

It’s important for project managers to tackle change management, keep senior leadership honest, and remind them of the written agreement to not surprise each other. This takes guts, but protecting one’s project team is a core responsibility of all project managers and Scrum masters. Offering to extend the timeline, reduce scope elsewhere, or add more developers to accommodate the additional scope can provide an alternative to the chaos of scope creep.

Take a bite out of watermelon status reports

Senior leadership may want to save time in a status report meeting by skipping over the green statuses of a project. But it’s important to dig into them as much as yellow and red statuses to ensure they aren’t watermelons. 

If leadership uncovers a watermelon, they’ll need to remind the project manager of their written agreement to not surprise each other and address each unique situation as it arises. Empathy and coaching are key here.

Wrapping up: Navigating technical project management

When it comes to technical project management, minimizing scope and hope creep is a constant challenge. PMs and SMs must be proactive and assertive. Establishing clear (and written) agreements with project sponsors upfront can set the tone for transparency and accountability throughout the project lifecycle. 

And when the scope inevitably begins to creep, project managers and Scrum masters must be prepared to be the first line of defense for their teams and uphold the agreement—a good project manager or Scrum master is comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Check out my Pluralsight courses for more project and change management tips.

Kevin Miller

Kevin M.

Kevin's mission is to close the gap between IT departments and the businesses they support, by opening IT to change. His goal is not to change what IT does; it is to change how IT does it, by changing how IT thinks. Kevin's expertise is helping organizations of all sizes adopt and embrace agile methodologies for faster deliveries, reduced cost, and increased customer satisfaction. Kevin possesses numerous degrees and certifications, and over 20 years of progressive experience in a wide range of technical areas, including: software development, operations, project management and leadership. His hobbies include learning, teaching, scuba diving, playing chess, and traveling.

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