Scope Doesn’t Creep, Understanding Grows

03 September

I’m always a little wary of meeting my heroes.  To be frank, I’m rather scared that I’m going to end up disappointed. Meeting Jeff Patton, however, was certainly an entirely different experience.  Jeff is gracious, kind, considered and self-effacing.  An all-round nice guy.  Not to mention his brilliance in writing User Story Mapping, (Patton, 2014).  If you want a life-changing read, pick up this book.  It is easy to read, uses simple language and just makes perfect sense.

On page 26 of User Story Mapping (Patton, 2014) Jeff makes a simple statement “Scope Doesn’t Creep, Understanding Grows”.  I’d like to explore this a little with an experience I believe we can all relate to.

Think about cleaning your room as a kid.  Your parent or caregiver, asks you to clean your room. You go into your room and do a quick tidy up.  You might get rid of the dirty washing off the floor, perhaps pick up some books and put everything on your desk.  They come in again and ask you to tidy up your desk so that you can actually use it to do homework.  Next step is that all the clean clothes need to be put away and the floor needs to be vacuumed.  What starts out as a seemingly simple statement of apparently a few minutes work ends up taking an hour.  Well, double that for the inevitable arguing back and forth.  I can tell you for sure that the picture your parent had in their head was a clean room, a clean floor and a clean desk.  The picture you started out with was perhaps a little different. Maybe “what is the least amount of work I can get away with?”

At the beginning of this story, we have a clear misunderstanding of the scope of the work to be done.

So, who is to blame for this misalignment?  Well, think of the parent as a Product Owner.  Their job is to share the vision, prioritise the backlog and listen to the team.  You as a team member need to ask the right questions, understand the vision and assist the Product Owner to make great decisions about the backlog.

This happens too with software development.  We think we understand what the scope of the issue is, we go away and start to build and the customer is unhappy when we deliver the wrong thing.  They don’t feel as though they have been listened to.  Again, the responsibility for this misalignment is shared.  The key is storytelling.  The Product Owner sharing the story of why the work we are doing has value and to who.  A team that identifies with the vision has a common purpose, a shared responsibility and a drive to achieve the value that is understood.

We don’t know everything from the beginning, however, and agile software development recognises this.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been as a showcase when a customer/product owner/SME/ Key stakeholder has said something along the lines of “ah now that I have seen this I have thought of this, and this, and this and this.”  We simply can’t hold all the potential permutations in our heads.  As we learn more our understanding grows and often the solution we were convinced was the right one either entirely changes or is modified.  As we iterate we appreciate the complexities, subtleties and nuances of the vision at hand and that pesky thing called ‘life’ that happens to change around us.

It is important to accept that we can’t possibly know everything upfront.  We are human − we forget, we struggle to articulate or consider everything, or more often simply the world changes around us and there are new things we need to consider.  Our goal, therefore, is to move to a shared understanding.  Through the collaboration of ideas, we often reach an entirely different and better solution to our own first original thoughts. 

My top tips to grow understanding:

  1. Share the vision through storytelling.
  2. Ask the silly questions.  All…of…them.
  3. Make sure you understand why we are doing this, both the big picture and each individual segment.
  4. Use positive language: “Can you help me understand……?”
  5. Replay the intent of the story/task/requirement to ensure the understanding is shared.
  6. As new work is identified, simply add it to the backlog.
  7. Take the learnings achieved by increasing understanding as a gift.
  8. Rinse and repeat.


Post by Julie Wilson