Process Creep

There's more than one way to disorient a Project Manager.

Apollo astronauts making a funny face.

As a Project Manager, it’s not uncommon to find yourself questioning the very nature of existence from time to time. Anyone who’s ever managed a project has probably had a client interaction that made them feel like the spacetime continuum had folded in on itself. But I find it even more disorienting when reality starts to break down within my team. Here’s an example:

You and your team have a well-defined routine. You’re all onboard with it. Week after week the routine is working great—if we do this, we get that. It’s something everyone can rely on. But then you find out one or more of your teammates are following some weird, parallel-universe version of the routine and it’s not producing the desired outcome. The change seems sudden and forces you to question what, before this, had been a pillar of consistency.

How were things working so well up until now if the routine wasn’t being followed? Has anyone else deviated from the routine? Where did this Bizarro routine come from? Why are my teammates surprised that I’m surprised about this?

Welcome to Process Creep.

Death by a thousand cuts

Like scope creep, the glue that keeps your projects together is also susceptible to incremental, almost imperceptible, changes over time. At first these alterations don’t seem to matter and may even be encouraged depending on your work environment—if the end results are the same, it might not matter how people adapt the routine to fit their workflow. Over time however, these casual changes can add up to have large-scale implications.

Addressing Process Creep isn’t about making sure things are done your way, it’s about safeguarding the things that make you and your team successful. Here are some warning signs to watch out for:

  • A lack of formalization. There’s a difference between a routine and a process. I think of a routine as an informal rule of thumb, and a process as something that’s formal, documented, and reviewed periodically. If you suspect you’re seeing Process Creep, it might mean that your routine isn’t as well-defined as you think.
  • Over-complication. Having a well-defined process isn’t all that useful if it’s overly complicated. Your team may be having a hard time remembering the steps or knowing how to make decisions along the way. For most small to medium-sized projects, the best processes are the ones that feel organic.
  • Iteration and restlessness. The way I manage my to-dos today isn’t exactly the same as how I managed them a year ago. These changes are based on a perceived need for refinement, but also on restlessness. Sometimes, despite common sense, we have a tendency to change things just for the sake of of change. For personal processes this might not matter much. But when a process involves more than one person, subtle changes often have wider, unintended consequences.
  • Put yourself in their shoes

    It’s easy to get frustrated by Process Creep. There’s a tremendous amount of comfort in thinking that you and your teammates are all on the same page when it comes to how you get work done. When you discover a disconnect, it can be pretty jarring.

    But try to keep in mind that, as a manager, process is your job and making things is theirs. So schedule a check-up of your processes every once in a while. After all, you’re supposed to be thinking about this stuff so your team doesn’t have to.