The Scariest Question in Product Development

Posted on November 13, 2023.
A group of people excited about sharing their ideas. Illustration.

The scariest question in product development is:

You know what would be cool? 

This question is a clear signal that scope creep is right around the corner. Scope creep is when a team starts to slowly and steadily increase the scope of the work they’re doing. There was a stated goal, an agreed upon plan and roadmap and execution had begun. Now, as the work progresses, new ideas come to light. That’s natural. We learn new things as we start to design and build and we get inspired. The most common expression of this new inspiration is, “You know what would be cool?” followed by a pitch for adding something new to the plan. 

Ideas aren’t necessarily bad or good

The inspiration that comes up as we design and build isn’t obviously (usually) a good or bad idea. It’s something that we didn’t think of before we started or perhaps we saw it in another product and thought it made sense in ours. Alternatively, a stakeholder could pop in with their own “inspiration” they discovered during an epiphanous shower moment. Regardless of how they came to be, not all of these ideas are without merit. They should be considered. However, they cannot be considered on their own. They have to be considered within the current goals, context, scope and commitment of the work we are doing. 

Combat scope creep with these questions

When scope creep rears its head (and it will) in the form of this question (or its many variations), work together as a team to answer these questions about the new idea:

  • Who is this idea for? Push the team to explicitly state which members of our target audience the idea will benefit.
  • What problem does it solve for them? Discuss exactly how we believe this new idea will help our users solve their problem or meet their needs. Include in this discussion how this would solve it better than what we currently have planned.
  • How will this help us achieve our stated goals? We’ve set our OKRs and our stakeholders’ expectations. This new idea could potentially derail those. Ask the team to clearly articulate how they believe this new idea can help us better achieve our goals and meet our stakeholders’ needs.
  • What will we not do in place of this idea? This is the most important question in this entire list. The biggest risk of scope creep is overcommitment. We already have a backlog full of work – probably for multiple sprints. If we’re going to add in a new idea, something has to come out. What will that be? Why that idea? How will we justify our decision to cut one feature over another to our clients? 

Test any ideas that survive

If your “cool” idea survives these four questions then test it. You’ve got a brand new set of assumptions which means a brand new set of risks. With the four questions you’ve built a compelling story (extra story writing tip here!) for the scope change but you still lack the evidence to justify it. Write your hypotheses, run your experiments and collect data. If the evidence upholds your decision, carry on. Otherwise, consider parking the “cool” idea until such time as you have more bandwidth to explore it, refine it and make it viable for your audience and their challenges. 

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