Beware of “nostalgia creep”

You’ve probably heard of “scope creep” — when you tack on extra features or add-ons to the initial scope of a project.

The more you add in, the more complicated the project becomes, and the greater the risk that deadlines start slipping. In a fast-moving product development cycle, this can be detrimental to completing it on time. Or, you wind up with so many new complexities that the project doesn’t meet its original goals at all. Left untreated, scope creep can be a mess to a team’s productivity and morale.

But yesterday, while reading Powerful, the book about culture at Netflix by Patty McCord, I learned about a new type of existential threat to watch out for in your business: nostalgia creep.

Unlike scope creep, nostalgia creep isn’t about a specific project or assignment; it’s the danger of reminiscing too much about the “days gone by” of the business. Here’s one way you might recognize it at work:

Person 1: “Man, things really aren’t the same, anymore around here. Remember when we all used to just fit around the same table and eat lunch together?”
Person 2: “Tell me about it! Just the other day, I was asked to prepare an onboarding presentation for the engineering team about our work. I was like ‘Can’t we just talk about it!?’”
Person 3: (walks over) “Hey team, it’s time for the all-hands Town Hall. See you there in five.”
Person 1 & 2: (roll eyes at each other, show up late, then text throughout the meeting)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a sucker for the early days. I love visiting “the first office” of a company and seeing the upgrade years later. Back at Stack Overflow, when I was one of 10 people on the sales team, the engineering team use to drive us crazy when (like clockwork) they would pull out a ping pong table over the desks at 5 p.m. sharp, just so they could play a little in the office.

And while it’s certainly lovely to think fondly back on the memories of the early days, or to laugh at the crude ways in which you got things done, as Patty points out, if you’re not careful, it just might hold back the business. Here’s why:

It might lead to more change-resistant behaviors.

If too many people are dwelling on the past, it’ll be harder for your business to adapt and grow for the present, and even more important, adapt for the future. It’s tempting, of course, to “settle” into the “new normal” after a company overcomes a certain hurdle or milestone. But of course, that’s only one of many “leveling up” phases that must take place at that organization. Compounded over time, this can be quite destructive. If your first reaction to a new proposal is, “Well, we never used to do it this way!” or “That’s not how things are done around here!” you might be part of the problem.

It might cause factions with the “new guard” and the “old guard.”

This seems to be an inevitable side effect of any growth within a group of people. As new people join, they are brought in because their skills match what is needed for that current and next phase of change. This is by definition a different phase than when earlier employees were brought in. Often, this friction in the two groups — one group that represents “what was” and another that represents “what could be” leads to organizational and social rifts. If this starts to impact collaboration efforts, you’re in trouble.

It might lead to irrational decision-making about important business objectives.

I’m not Buddhist, but there’s a concept I read about a couple of years ago that I keep coming back around “clinginess.” Essentially, it’s when you hold only something that once was, despite changes in the world around you. I hear this being used in business when people feel a tendency to “cling” onto early hires, even when the job may have outgrown them. But feeling this nostalgia effect too deeply, and clinging too closely to what things used to be like, is a bad mindset to be in for a forward-looking business. This is, I imagine, part of what Jeff Bezos implies in his “every day is day one” mantra at Amazon. If you get too attached to the past, you might neglect important data or information needed to inform a new decision today.

I really liked how Patty called out this idea so directly in her book, and it certainly resonated with me. The longer you work in a place or hold the same job, the higher risk you are for experiencing “nostalgia creep” in your decision-making at work. So I’m writing this out for two reasons — one, as a reminder to myself to be on the lookout for this in my own job — and two, just in case any of you find it relatable to where you happen to be right now, too.


Originally published at Dry Erase, my personal blog and digital whiteboard.