Scope small and carry a big map.

No one wants to be the fool trying to boil the ocean so we scope small to make fast incremental progress. Just because the scope is small, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look carefully at the big picture first.

In our efforts to defend against scope creep we often translate small goals into need for small awareness. We worry that if we even look at the big picture, scope will creep. We don’t map out what’s what overall because “we’re only working on this small section right now”.

Products are like digital Rube Goldberg machines, though.

You tweak a small thing and it often has a cascading effect. At some point in execution that cascading effect will rear its head.

Imagine you just wanted to change 1 part of a Rube Goldberg machine..

DAY 4:

“I just realized that if we’re rearrange those 5 dominoes to the right things will get all jammed up.”

“Shit, let’s regroup tomorrow.”

DAY 5:

“So, we got some feedback to move the dominoes to the left instead.”

“That makes no sense for us. Do they even know what dominoes DO???”

DAY 9:

“Spoke to more people, we may not even need to touch the dominoes.”

“Let’s just move 1 domino instead of 5. To be safe.”


“This project is scoped down even smaller and it’s late. We were trying to keep this small and it blew up again. Why does this keep happening??”

To prevent this kind of churn, UX Designers, Service Designers and Product Managers create visual maps as tools to both understand and illustrate the problem they’re trying to solve and the landscape they’re working in.

When you see the whole landscape it’s a lot easier to identify the best way to surgically execute your small scope design plan.

So, why don’t more people do it?

Naturally, most people associate big picture mapping with big projects.

big pic project = big pic map
small scope project = no need to map!

I’ve found its more like this:

big picture project = “abstract map” describes ideas at a high level in order to gain clarity and shared vision around an abstract problem and/or solution
small scope project = “inventory map” describes concrete things in order to support concrete strategizing.

Abstract mapping is far more popular and fun. It’s wayyy more interesting to lay out and discuss abstract ideas visualized as elegant logical flows. You feel so smart and innovative. High fives all around!!!

Some people will find inventory maps boring and tedious to create. There’s some creativity involved, but not a lot because inventory maps are not about imagining what could be, they’re about illustrating what is. Doesn’t everyone just know that already? Feels like busy work. A lot of energy that no one will be impressed by.

It may not be impressive in itself, but as a design planning tool, “inventory maps” are highly effective. Like a lot of things it’s a choice between a little grunt work now or a lot of churn later.

Maybe you’re thinking “Why big cumbersome physical maps? Can’t you just type something up to explain the landscape?” Sure, you can. But other people’s brains won’t absorb it as well.

  • The spatial reasoning involved in examining a map makes for stronger cognitive mapping.
  • The affordance of a visual touchstone makes communication with collaborators far more efficient and less prone to misinterpretation.

While the “inventory” maps for small scope projects can be annoying to create, their enduring nature means they’ll usually last you through several projects. Make it once, pull it out whenever you have a small scope project that you need to execute on quickly.

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