Debt Beyond Dollars

Technical Debt Will Cost You More Than Money

Even if your organization’s balance sheet shows no debts, it’s a safe bet you have some.  If you’re not aware of that debt, you can’t be managing it well.Triple constraints

The debts I’m referring to aren’t generally tracked in dollars.  But the financial toll of their impact on your organization’s resilience, flexibility, responsiveness, ability to grow, and overall health is huge.

Technical Debt

Technical debt is often caused by decisions to take shortcuts, usually to get something quickly or cheaply.  We cut corners in planning, design, testing, training, documentation, communication with impacted parties, and other functions that seem to slow us down.  Sometimes there is waste in those areas and they should be streamlined.  But often decision-makers are too far removed to recognize the long-term impact of the cuts.  So we pat ourselves on the back when the project launches successfully without the “overhead” that we cut.

Paying Back the Interest

But that speed was actually achieved through a “loan” that will have to be paid back with “interest”.  We’re borrowing against future use of resources.  The interest takes many forms: 

  • Systems break and take longer to get back up because of inadequate training. 
  • The one guy who knows that system no longer works here and he was hurrying too much to document what he did. 
  • Design shortcuts mean we can’t easily adapt to changing requirements.
  • Frustrated employees who aren’t communicated with about changes find other job offers more enticing.  
  • Errors happen either because of conditions that weren’t planned for or because people weren’t trained correctly.  
  • The resources aren’t available for the next project to move fast because they’re tied up trying to keep prior systems running.  We try the “you’ve shown us you can do this” speech without realizing that the reason they can’t do it now is because they’re busy paying the interest from when we made them do it before.

Managing the Debt

Sometimes speed is important enough to make it worth incurring some debt.  But every loan should have a payback plan.  If you keep adding debt without paying it back you’ll find your organization trapped in a debtor’s prison.

Most articles on technical debt focus on software development. But the principal is broader. In fact it’s broader than just technology.  Whenever our decisions don’t accurately account for future side-effects, we risk incurring a debt that will have to be paid back with interest.  If the benefits are worth the interest, taking on the debt is a good decision.  If we’re blind to the debt and the interest rate, we’re not good decision-makers.

Good decision-makers are good leaders who trust and value the input of those they lead.  There’s almost always someone in the trenches who understands the impact.  Good decision-makers will seek them out to make sure their decisions are well informed.

Bottom line:  Managing technical debt starts with good leadership skills.  If you’re leading well, those you lead are the key to your good decisions. They won’t always agree with you, but their confidence (and yours) should go up when they’ve been heard. © 2023 enLumen Leadership Services

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