How does a scrum master deal with scope creep?

How does a scrum master deal with scope creep?

Welcome to part 54 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

My heart sank a little when I heard this one. A lot of these questions stem from the idea the interviewer perceives the scrum master as a project manager. The idea that the scrum master is responsible for driving outcomes and managing the project from end-to-end.

That isn’t their role. A scrum master is not involved in the delivery of the product at all.

They focus on creating an environment where the team can excel, and help remove impediments that are outside of the control and influence of the team.

Scope Creep.

Scope creep is a term used in project management to describe what happens when the project management team agree a specific scope for the project with the customer or project stakeholders, only to find that more elements are being added to the project scope as they move along.

In a project management environment, this is problematic because the entire arrangement is designed to identify what needs doing upfront, how long it will take to do the work, and within what cost constraints the work must be completed.

The team then follow the plan and deliver against predetermined and agreed deadlines.

Agile, on the other hand, embraces the idea of change – even late in product development – because the focus lies in delighting customers rather than simply following a plan.

So, whilst the scope creep is dreaded in the project management world, the agile world invites changes to the plan, as and when necessary, to ensure that the team are creating and capturing value for the customer at every stage of the product development process.

Scrum Master interventions

Ok, so let’s answer the interview question.

You are the scrum master and you observe that the scrum team are taking on more work than they should be, and that additional work is disrupting their ability to create and deliver value to customers.

What do you do?

  • We can’t tell the team what to do because we don’t have the authority to do so.
  • We can’t tell the team what to do because they are the experts. We don’t know what to do.
  • We can’t tell the team how to solve the problem, because they are best positioned to do so.

See the pattern? In agile, decisions are decentralized precisely because we want the most qualified, skilled people in the organization to make the decisions about the work they are doing.

We don’t get someone with little to no knowledge to make that call, as in the case of a scrum master intervening in software development decisions, we work with the experts and the team to design the right interventions and then work with them to convert those challenges into valuable outcomes.

Highlight the issues.

What we can do, as a scrum master, is call attention to what we are observing.

Let’s assume that the team are so committed to delivery that they lose sight of what is happening. So, we raise the issue with the team and have a conversation about what we are observing.

  • Clarify whether what you are seeing is a trend or an anomaly.
  • Ask them how the additional work is impacting the team’s ability to deliver value.
  • Ask them if what they are doing aligns with the most valuable work to be done.
  • Ask them what the potential consequences of this trend are.
  • Ask them what might be a better approach to dealing with extra work items in the backlog.

And so forth.

You are bringing things to their attention and inviting them to explore the options available to them, and to think about the consequences of what is happening.

Identify where the problem is arising.

Work through what you are observing and begin to identify how this came about, why it is persisting, and where it is heading.

  • How did this scope creep come about?
  • Why is it sustained and persistent rather than a once-off intervention?
  • Is this an internal problem that needs to be addressed?
  • Is this happening outside the control and influence of the team?
  • Is teaching, coaching, consulting, or mentoring required to resolve the issue?
  • Who do we recruit to help us resolve the problem?

If we identify this is a simple matter of people not understanding scrum, we can teach them and coach them toward better ways of working. If it comes from a powerful stakeholder or senior leader in the organization, we are going to need a different approach and to recruit a powerful stakeholder to represent our interests in that conversation too.

So, work through how this is happening, why it is happening, and what our options are in resolving the issue.

  • What triggered this series of events?
  • How can we pre-empt this in future?
  • What are our options when this happens in future?

Scope creep is tough because as stated earlier, embracing changes in requirements – even late in development – is a fundamental agile principle. If a powerful stakeholder or important client needs us to make an intervention, that’s what we signed up for.

At the same time, we aren’t signing up for people to throw work into the sprint backlog – mid sprint – as and how they wish. That would be chaos. So, we are trying to identify problem areas versus a once-off event that just required us to pull together and deliver a solution.

Tackling an external influence on the team.

The internal stuff is relatively straightforward to deal with, it’s the external stuff that is hard.

This is where you, as a scrum master or agile coach, will come into play because you are tackling issues that are outside of the influence and control of the team.

Again, you are going to work with the team on this rather than ride off into the sunset on your noble steed to save the day. Once the team are clear on what is happening, why it is happening, and have chosen a set of responses that best fit the team’s idea of a great solution, then you are good to go.

As a scrum master, you have a set of options:

  • Teach
  • Train
  • Facilitate
  • Coach
  • Consult
  • Mentor

Your role is to identify which of these is most appropriate, and at what stage it needs to evolve into something else.

For example, you may need to teach another department head what scrum is, how it works, and how it enables the team to deliver great outcomes frequently and consistently. As they begin to grasp and accept this, you many need to shift to a consulting role where you simply tell them how best to go about engaging with the team and how to present that to the team in future.

As they evolve and grow, you shift into a coaching role where you help them explore all options available to them, what might be the best next step forward, and to reflect on the progress that is being made and how that impacts both sides of the business.

This is just a matter of doing the hard yards.

If that person who is creating the problem is a senior, powerful stakeholder, it is going to require a lot of finesse and patience. But, it will have a significant impact on the team and help resolve a lot of issues they are experiencing so it’s worth doing the work.

So, those are my recommendations for dealing with scope creep as a scrum master.

About John McFadyen

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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