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Scoping and Right-Sizing
Res Extensa #19 :: Building the right feature for the right problem pivots on how well you set your appetites
In product teams you’re continually faced with the challenge of scoping. When you build something directly for a customer, for a fee (consulting), the scoping process is explicit and has built-in constraints — customer expectations, funding, timelines, deliverables. Even in that scenario, agreeing on a firm scope for an effort isn’t simple, but it’s even harder when working in a product company. The same constraints still exist, but in a more nebulous, undefined form. Constraints aren’t imposed and enforced externally by a single client dangling the paycheck. The demands are dispersed amongst thousands of users with sometimes-competing desires, paying varying amounts for your product. So it’s important to define hard edges based on your own goals and objectives.
When you set down the idea for a feature’s implementation, you always want your new feature to be cooler or more powerful than you’re able to commit to. Even with light investigation, you discover that it’ll take many cycles to get to get all the way there. So you have to forgo achieving your complete vision and put up some boundaries at an interim milestone along the path. This is one of the hardest parts of product design — you have to knowingly ship something “incomplete” according to your vision, but that’s directionally aligned and a solid waypoint on the journey.
If you’re setting your own objectives, you have no one telling you exactly what to ship, how much to spend, or when to be done. Not to downplay the complexities involved in consulting, but the incentives and constraints are generally much clearer; you’re unlikely to commit massive resources to a hazy and overzealous goal, and the customer isn’t likely to pay you what it’d take to commit — so you compromise, hopefully early enough in the process that no one is too upset.
When it’s your own product, you still have customers, but their individual wishes and needs are distributed enough that it’s on you to synthesize what customers want into a clear vision you can break down into parts, and to enforce your own boundaries. No one is forcing any particular constraint; you could spend months crafting and polishing the most perfect version of the feature until the final day you get it out there. But good products come about as a consequence of savvy incorporation of market feedback into the development process. The best model uses increments that are each valuable enough to earn committed investment and experimentation from customers, which gives you the feedback you need to validate what you’ve made and make the course-corrections on the next stage of the path. As clear as your vision might be, it’s still not proven until it intersects with reality. Like the old adage says: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Or the customer, as it were. Real-world feedback is what separates a vision from a hallucination.
You need to create a trail toward your vision with release points along the way that each constitute something “complete” enough to use and validate. And that’s where I think the core problem lives in product development: the balance of between shipping enough to consider a feature useful but soon enough that you can start measuring the impacts that will inform your next waypoint. Shipping a two-legged stool in a week and saying “we’ll see if the market really needs a third leg” doesn’t work. It needs to do enough that users will invest in it and generate the sweet nectar for product teams (user feedback!).
Once you’ve established a vision for what you want to achieve, you then carve away at it until you have essential stages that’ll work as milestones. In the best cases, each milestone could be a defensible stopping point for a feature. You could ship the first stage, never revisit the idea, and still have something whole and useful. The scoping process is a painful, but critical step to getting a useful enough product feature soon enough to close the feedback loop and begin iterating. I find the Shape Up idea of “appetites” a useful metaphor for selecting milestones:
Whether we’re chomping at the bit or reluctant to dive in, it helps to explicitly define how much of our time and attention the subject deserves. Is this something worth a quick fix if we can manage? Is it a big idea worth an entire cycle? Would we redesign what we already have to accommodate it? Will we only consider it if we can implement it as a minor tweak?
It’s tempting to make the scoping and appetite-setting process a group exercise — to fold in product management, design, engineering, ops, sometimes even marketing. A wider aperture of company buy-in makes sense at a macro/vision level, but once you get down on the ground defining specifics, you need fewer people involved to be able to drill in on what’s most important. If possible, it’s best to involve only those directly responsible for defining and building the thing in question. Too many heads generate too much free-form “ideation” and not enough of the brass tacks horse-trading required to make hard trade-offs required.
I have a two-part theory on scoping:
Projects scoped by large committees tend to get larger — perhaps because the average contributor knows it’s unlikely the next idea tossed into the hat will fall in their lap to execute; lots of people just get to be the “idea person”
Projects scoped by individuals or small groups tend to get smaller — because you’re on the hook to build everything, everyone has skin in the game
Landing somewhere in between is ideal for product scoping. Removing things from the vision (or deferring) requires honesty, commitment, and focus, which are all much easier to guarantee in small groups.
We’re often too idealistic with scoping and think we can squeeze in that “One More Thing”. Stretch goals are fine and can be motivating, but too far-fetched of an objective point can end up setting the wrong expectations across the company. If you’re not more aggressive with the hatchet than you think you need to be in the early stages of feature planning, the whole team (and your customer) will be worse off.
This post originally appeared a few years ago on my blog, but was updated recently with some additional thoughts.