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I have on the tip of my tongue some phrase that captures part of the meanings “polishing a turd”, “feature creep”, and “tits on a boarhog” but I can't quite recall it.

The phrase I'm looking for is—most importantly—different from “turd polishing” because that phrase implies the project is valueless so any improvements are irrelevant and a waste of time, whereas the phrase I'm looking for has no such implication.

It's different from “feature creep” because that phrase strongly implies that the improvements in question will increase technical debt or support costs, possibly drastically, the longer they're allowed to continue, whereas the phrase I'm looking for doesn't imply anything in either direction about efficiency gains from the improvements.

It differs from from “tits on a boarhog” in that that phrase implies that the features are historic accidents, not crafted by a person, and entirely worthless as they stand. By contrast, the phrase I'm looking for refers specifically to features which are currently in the process of being added, and designed by a (connotatively implied to be overenthusiastic) intelligence, and, while the improvements in this case likely have some value, this value is not recognized by the current stakeholders (and the phrase carries absolutely no connotation condemning the stakeholders for their priorities; if anything, it has a moderate negative connotation against the worker engaging in such frivolities).

What is the term for spontaneously adding improvements to some project, especially a group effort or an industrial project— improvements which may (or may not) be well crafted, but that exceed the consensus requirements irrelevantly?

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    "gilding the lily" is the closest thing that comes to mind.
    – RTF
    May 16, 2023 at 20:41
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    Adding bells and whistles supplies cosmetic frills. Putting lipstick on a pig dresses up a loser uselessly. And a camel is a horse designed by committee says that pleasing a team produces ugly results. May 16, 2023 at 21:19
  • "Futile change requests" may lead to "pointless efforts".
    – Graffito
    May 16, 2023 at 21:38
  • Confucius said The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat. So, "Futile change requests" may lead to "pointless efforts".
    – Graffito
    May 16, 2023 at 21:46
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    I DV'd because your question, despite (or perhaps because of) its length, is very unclear to me. For example, in your comment on mankowitz's answer you say you want something "ambivalent about the improvements' quality", but "polishing a turd" is by no means ambivalent about that issue. One indication of how unclear your question is is the wide variety of suggestions people have made, including phrases that are wildly different from one another. Please clarify! May 17, 2023 at 1:58

6 Answers 6

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Gilding the lily might be what you're looking for. It doesn't imply that the original thing is useless, but attempting to preserve or embellish it further is fruitless and might even destroy it, like trying to cover a lily in gold leaf.

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(law of) diminishing returns

diminishing returns (n.)

Benefits that beyond a certain point fail to increase in proportion to extended efforts
M-W

(idiomatic) A condition in which additional inputs into an organization, project or process produce progressively fewer or lower-quality additional outputs, and may, in extreme cases, cause the total quantity or quality of outputs to decrease.
Wiktionary

law of diminishing returns

A principle in economics: at any given stage of technological advance an increase in productive factors (as labor or capital) applied beyond a certain point fails to bring about a proportional increase in production
M-W


Determine Stakeholders' Utility Functions Different stakeholders' preferences over the benefit and cost attributes will vary substantially with specific situations. ...

An important aspect of cost-benefit analyses, as advocated in this chapeter, is the likely nonlinear nature of utility functions. In particular, diminishing returns and aspiration levels tend to be central to stakeholder's "preference spaces."
Harold Booher; Handbook of Human Systems Integration (2003)

Bells and Whistles: Diminishing Returns

The sheer volume and complexity of features in project management software can intimidate new users, contributing to a lack of acceptance by some project managers. Packed with advanced, sometimes marginally useful features, software offers dozens of reports and charts showing resource allocation conflicts, incorporating subprojects, and tracking almost every conceivable variable a project has to offer. This proliferation of features is analogous to the "feature creep" as associated with other software categories, such as word processing software.
Roy Strauss and Patrick Hogan; Developing Effective Website (2013)

There exists a point of diminishing returns when a CP [Command Post] is outfitted with too many bells and whistles in an attempt to further enhance its function.
Dave Thompson; "The Missing Link" in Armor, Vol. 105 (1996)

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Change for change's sake is a phrase that describes the notion of making irrelevant or undesired changes to something that doesn't need it. This can occur in group projects where one member contributes little throughout the project, and makes some irrelevant contribution near the deadline in order to show they've done something, even though they really contributed nothing meaningful. Usually the person pitching the change is negatively viewed as having a personal stake in the change, as the change is broadly viewed as not improving anything.

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As I recall (possibly imperfectly), my PhD supervisor (English, grew up in Wales) used to say overegging the pudding in this sense (as in "let's not go crazy adding new features"), although the Cambridge English Dictionary says the meaning is

to make something seem larger, more important, better, or worse than it really is

Wiktionary says

To embellish too much, to exaggerate (synonym for "gilding the lily")

Collins says

to try so hard to improve something that you spoil it, for example by making it seem exaggerated or extreme

The last definition seems closest to what I remember.

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The phrase pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) comes to mind, meaning something that does have some intrinsic value, but the observers (pigs) would never appreciate it. When talking about the improvement, the developer may be preaching to deaf ears or simply talking to a wall.

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    That's not what I'm looking for, since "swine" casts strong negative judgement on the stakeholders and their priorities, and "pearls" has strong connotations of quality or value for the items in question. The phrase I'm looking for is ambivalent-to-positive about the stakeholders' frame of reference, and ambivalent about the improvements' quality. May 16, 2023 at 21:47
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I asked Google’s Bard and it provided some phrases beyond those mentioned in other replies: feature frenzy; vanity feature; over-engineering; gold plating; bolting on features; personalization project; polish the brass.

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