Feature creep can be an uncomfortable reality for many product managers. It crept into my work when I was a product manager at a large company, navigating many product teams and several layers of management.
The executive team wished to innovate at every opportunity — but at the product level, we were uncertain which initiatives to pursue. Goals were communicated annually, shared in static documents with limited visibility. The lack of clarity trickled down to the product teams. And, unfortunately, it caused pet projects to creep in and consume key resources.
Without day-to-day visibility into goals, anyone could prioritize a strategic initiative or change the product roadmap on a whim. We all guessed differently on what mattered most.
In an effort to keep my team feeling confident that what we were working on mattered, I tried to prioritize what I thought would have the biggest positive impact on the business.
But the problem was that my boss and his boss were doing the same thing — and forcing their priorities onto the team too. Leadership blurred the responsibilities of the product owner and scrum master when presenting disruptive opportunities. We were all afraid to say no, so we were all saying yes.
I didn’t realize it then, but I caused my own suffering as a product manager — I contributed to feature overload and creep by being reluctant to force strategic alignment.
If a company fosters a “fail fast” mentality without strategic direction, feature creep will inevitably follow. This is how my roadmap became a bloated collection of unrelated releases and features.
Product managers have a responsibility to ask tough questions and make trade-off decisions. Your team needs you to protect their ability to focus on delivering what matters most.
Here are five ways product managers can avoid the worst cause of feature creep — lack of clear strategic direction:
Commit to goals
Even if your leadership team does not communicate strategy often, you can employ a goal-first approach as a product manager — even down to detail planning. Question any detail that isn’t essential to your goal. Objectively assess disruptive opportunities against a strategic scorecard. Diligently report on how your roadmap is progressing. And if you don’t know if your product goals are aligned to the overall business goals, ask until you do.
Share the vision
You may find yourself in a company where product roadmap ownership is not well defined. If roadmap ownership is blurry at your company, accept it (for now) and get busy with what you can control — a great vision that is collaborative and a process that regularly checks course with feedback.
Cycle feedback quickly
In retrospect, I should have been applying the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) to product management. It does not mean that you should do the bare minimum — rather, it means that 80 percent of the customer value will come from 20 percent of the effort. Validate those “extra” features with iterations, not guesswork.
Before shutting down ideas that seem unrelated to your goals, ask your team why they are needed. Innovations are often organic. For example, product managers may find their team impulsively adds scope during development sprints. Dig deeper, and you may find they’re incrementally trying to create something new that should be formally added to your roadmap.
Lead by example
It is common to see product managers accept too many priorities without asking the executive team to decide on what matters most. Know that others will be guided by your direction. If you’re adding “just one more feature” others will too. Making strategy a priority will make it possible for your team’s work to shine — and for them to follow your example.
Product managers do the hard work of navigating the opinions and feedback of colleagues — often without formal authority to push back — while still owning the product vision. Successful product managers own that vision with conviction.
Instead of succumbing to feature creep, find opportunities to tie your features directly back to what your customers need. Ask questions, move quickly, and set an example for others. That is how product managers defeat feature creep and build successful products.