Product Management

Dealing with the Scope Creep of Being a Product Manager

The very nature of the product manager position is designed in such a way that scope creep for the role will invariably occur

Tom Comerford
Mar 20, 2019 · 5 min read

Most product managers should be familiar with the concept of scope creep. This is the product development equivalent of the impulse aisle at a supermarket. You’re in the store shopping for specific things, but you figure that while you’re there, you might as well pick up a bottle of blue Gatorade, a pack of gum, some tabloid magazines, and a book of stamps. It can be extremely tempting to attempt to add incremental value or pivot quickly, while trying to be more efficient. But just like the impulse aisle, scope creep is usually not healthy for your product.

For product managers, scope creep is something to avoid when building products and features. It can add unneeded complexity to the work, delay key milestones, and worse yet, create ambiguity around the product’s value proposition. Unless you’re designing the latest model of Swiss Army Knife, cobbling together new tools and functions without proper due diligence is a recipe for disaster. As scope creep starts to set in, a savvy product manager can recognize and reduce the risk involved with snowballing requirements and features. It starts with understanding the problems that scope creep causes.

Image Source: Pexels

But an even more problematic form of scope creep for product managers has to do with roles and responsibilities. Product managers, by nature, are trained to think and do things in a way that drives results. This means that as a product manager, we wear many different hats, depending on the day and objective. Sometimes, product managers need to be their own analysts or QA testers. Other days, the product manager becomes a trainer or support specialist. These are all necessary steps in the process of creating a successful product. However, when these types of activities become a regular part of the product manager’s daily responsibilities, it creates scope creep for product managers.

If you’re like me, then you have most likely encountered this at some point in your product management career. In order to get a job done or to ensure success, you roll up your sleeves and find a scrappy way forward. In past roles, I have at times acted as a salesperson for my product, going on roadshows to not only solicit user feedback but also promote and sell through to potential buyers. In other situations, I have become the first line of support on my product, triaging user issues and taking on operational tasks to resolve the problems. These scenarios are a slippery slope for product managers, because they pull you away from the core activities of your job.

Image Source: Pexels

The challenge with product manager scope creep begins with the individual. I can say with some certainty that most of my colleagues have never had a problem with me taking on responsibilities that drifted far from my core competencies. The issues that arose came from my managers, given that I assumed ownership of responsibilities that should have been owned by other people or teams. As a result of this type of scope creep, my inability to decouple instant results from job responsibilities led to less time to do actual product management work. In essence, I focused on very near-term activities while sacrificing my product vision.

As with most challenges, the first step to recovery starts with recognition. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to detect scope creep in your role as a product manager. It usually requires a humbling experience to reveal the fact that your work is not on track as a product manager. The best way to prepare for this is to fully understand the expectations of your position and evaluate your goals often. If the role aims to increase user engagement from a product, then the act of working on sales pitches may not be aligned with your KPIs. Having this sort of self-awareness will empower you to identify and remove areas of your work that have started to extend beyond the acceptable boundaries of product management.

Image Source: Pexels

For me, once I begin to suspect that my responsibilities are becoming more ambiguous, I evaluate my daily tasks. When daily behaviors do not directly impact your goals, you are likely encountering some level of scope creep. As I list my daily routines, I try to identify anything that I do that does not immediately contribute to my product’s success. This can be somewhat painful, as I am forced to decouple activities that may benefit the business from tasks that are intended to drive value from my product. In order to reconcile this fact in my mind, I remind myself that as a product manager the greatest way for me to positively impact my company is to deliver the products that contribute to the organizational objectives.

It is important to accept the fact that scope creep can and will happen. The very nature of the product manager position is designed in such a way that scope creep for the role will invariably occur. The important thing to remember is that being a product manager means balancing the short-term wins with a long-term vision that drives greater value for the organization. Before you begin chopping out job activities that may fall into the category of scope creep, make sure you have a strong understanding of the goals of your product and position. This will enable you to review your daily tasks and ensure that scope creep isn’t a substantial part of your product management routine.

Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter or in the comments. For more on product management, follow Trust the Product on Medium.

Trust the Product

Exploring product management at the nexus of process and people

Tom Comerford

Written by

Experienced product leader at Walmart with an MBA from NYU Stern

Trust the Product

Product management is as much an art as it is a science. We must adapt to both processes and people to deliver amazing products.

Tom Comerford

Written by

Experienced product leader at Walmart with an MBA from NYU Stern

Trust the Product

Product management is as much an art as it is a science. We must adapt to both processes and people to deliver amazing products.

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