Leverage points for technical debt management

Last updated on December 11th, 2018 at 10:40 am

Adopting a program of technical debt management entails significant change to the system we call the enterprise. The problem can seem so daunting that we don’t know where to begin. The places to begin are the places where the change agents have greatest leverage—what systems analysts call leverage points. Consider this scenario.

You’re sitting in the kickoff meeting of the new Technical Debt Management Task Force. The CEO is talking about how she realized that the company had a technical debt problem. It was when the Marigold project went through delay after delay, and was finally declared done, with multiple objectives waived. She’s saying something about, “we were trying to do backflips with millstones around our necks. So I want this task force to show us how to get rid of the millstones, and then get rid of them.”

McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as seen from nearby Observation Hill
McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as seen from nearby Observation Hill. The United States Antarctic Program, a unit of the National Science Foundation, operates the station. It can house as many as 1258 people in Summer. Photo (cc) Gaelen Marsden courtesy .

OK, you think. But how? We’re a global enterprise with thousands of engineers and operations on every continent. Except maybe Antarctica. No wait, we’re there, too. McMurdo I think. We have software we don’t even know much about, acquired long ago along with the companies that built it. And we’re building new systems or modifying old ones all the time, trying to move everything to the cloud while enhancing data security. Where do we begin to look for the millstones of technical debt?

Have you been in that meeting? If not, can you imagine being in that meeting? Meetings like that are happening around the globe. We’re all in the same soup.

It turns out that the answers to the millstone questions are available, but the pioneers and deep thinkers who have shown the way aren’t working on technical debt. Their field is called systems analysis. They work on problems like the collapse of the North Atlantic fishery, urban deterioration, unemployment, poverty, climate change, and the causes of the Great Recession of 2008—really difficult problems. Although the technical debt problem isn’t quite that challenging, it’s challenging enough to justify taking a look at the methods of systems analysis.

And when we do that, we immediately encounter a concept many call leverage points.

What are leverage points?

Leverage points are places in complex systems where a small change in one thing can produce big changes in system behavior. In a brilliant 1997 article, Donella Meadows describes what she calls “places to intervene in a system.” [Meadows 1997] She followed this article, making improvements each time, in 1999 [Meadows 1999] and 2008 [Meadows 2008]. Let me summarize Meadows’ work here.

To alter the behavior of a complex system, intervene at one or more of 12 categories of leverage points. For example, one category is called “Rules.” It consists of the incentives, punishments, and constraints that govern the behavior of the people and institutions that comprise the system. By adjusting the system’s rules, we can alter overall system behavior.

One more thing: the leverage points form an ordered hierarchy, ordered by effectiveness. Acting at a higher-level leverage point is more effective than acting at a lower-level leverage point. And more difficult, too. The ordering of the categories is a bit fuzzy, because every situation has its own quirks, but generally, the order is as given in the list below.

In a moment I’ll give an example of using leverage point #9, Delays, to bring about change in the way the enterprise deals with technical debt. But first, here’s a brief summary of the leverage points in increasing order of leverage; not enough to truly understand what they are, but probably enough to pique your interest. As I write posts that illustrate interventions at these leverage points, I’ll link to them from here.

  1. Numbers: Constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, and standards
  2. Buffers: The sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows
  3. Stock-and-Flow Structures: Physical systems and their nodes of intersection
  4. Delays in feedback loops
  5. Balancing Feedback Loops: The strength of the feedbacks relative to the impacts they are trying to correct
  6. Reinforcing Feedback Loops: The strength of the gain of driving loops
  7. Information Flows:  The structure of who does and does not have access to information
  8. Rules: Incentives, punishments, and constraints
  9. Self-Organization: The power to add, change, or evolve system structure
  10. Goals: The purpose or function of the system
  11. Paradigms: The mind-set out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises
  12. Transcending Paradigms

Changing systems that have delays in feedback loops

When we use feedback to control systems, and there are delays in the feedback, we can potentially create destructive system behavior. And that can happen when we try to control technical debt.

Whenever we try to control a quantity in an enterprise process, we must (a) set a target value for that quantity; then (b) measure its current value; and then (c) take action as appropriate to move the current value toward the target value. Systems analysts (and control theorists) call that arrangement a feedback loop. The action taken to move the current value to the target value is sometimes called the control signal. Under certain conditions, the feedback works as expected.

For example, to control the profitability of the enterprise, we can examine its net income, say, quarterly. And at the end of each quarter we can make adjustments if net income isn’t in the target range.

Feedback loops generally work pretty well, but under some conditions, oscillations can develop. One of those troublesome situations occurs when there’s a delay in the loop that’s of the same order as (or longer than) the time the system takes to respond to adjustments. Meadows uses the example of adjusting the water temperature of a shower when there’s a long delay between making the adjustment and feeling its effects. Overcorrection is almost inevitable, and that’s what causes system oscillation.

So let’s suppose that we’re trying to control the rate of accumulation of technical debt. One approach is to set a target for TDnew, the new technical debt generated in a project. To be fair to all projects, we decide to normalize this quantity according to the project budget B. So we set targets for each project’s N = TDnew/B, and we require that projects estimate N, on an ongoing basis, with a goal of having N in some target range when the project is complete.

One problem with this approach is that we rarely identify accurately all the technical debt we’ve incurred until some time has passed after project delivery. With time, as the newly produced assets go into production and learning accumulates, we acquire the wisdom needed to identify more of the technical debt we created. This is one source of delay in this feedback loop.

So let’s assume that this happens for several projects, and management decides that delayed recognition of incurred technical debt is a common occurrence. To account for this, management lowers the target ranges for N for future projects. This causes project managers and project sponsors to include in their project plans additional effort directed at retiring more of their incremental technical debt before their projects complete, to enable them to project lower values of N. They must therefore identify as much of the incremental technical debt as they can, and retire it, to meet the lower targets for N.

But recall that technical debt identification sometimes requires time and experience using the newly produced asset. And the reverse process also occurs. Technical artifacts that we thought were technical debt prove to be useful in unexpected ways, and actually turn out not to be debt items after all. As a result, some of the incremental technical debt that got retired before the project was completed actually should not have been retired. Eventually, people realize that this happens with uncomfortable frequency, and so the targets for N are raised once more.

Oscillations thus set in. Long delays inevitably cause them. To prevent oscillations, shorten the delays.

How to shorten delays in feedback controlling technical debt

With technical debt, we can shorten delays in several ways.

  • If the asset is meant for human use, involve representatives of the user population in the development and design process as soon as practical. Have them exercise the asset, or prototypes, early. Listen to their suggestions. Observe how they use the asset.
  • If the asset must interact with non-human assets, exercise it early and often. Don’t think of this as testing, though it might look very much like testing. What you’re actually doing is searching for shortcomings in how the asset interacts with non-human assets, in design and implementation in an asset that already works.
  • Subject the asset to multiple reviews all along the development trajectory. Don’t wait for final release to review it.

These practices expose technical debt items early—potentially, during initial design—thereby reducing delays in identifying what is and what is not technical debt. They help to advance the date at which we uncover missing capabilities or capabilities designed or implemented in awkward ways. No surprise, I’m sure, but these practices are consistent with Agile approaches to technological development.

Indirect effects can add to delayed recognition of technical debt

Most of the argument above assumed that the incremental technical debt associated with the project was incurred within the asset undergoing development or maintenance. But technical debt can occur in other assets as well. When the development team is unaware of such “remote” or “indirect” incremental technical debt, recognition of that new incremental technical debt can be significantly delayed. The project’s N will appear to be smaller that it actually is, until that remote incremental technical debt is recognized.

This form of delay is likely to occur when the debt incurred is asset-exogenous. Recall the example of line extension of mobile phones. In that example, the enterprise incurs technical debt in one set of products as a result of the introduction of a different product. In some cases, the newly incurred technical debt is immediately evident. When it is not, delays can be substantial.

This effect is by no means rare. Any organizational change can potentially add to the technical debt portfolio—reorganizations, acquisitions, expansions, wholly new products, and much more.

Conclusions

Interventions at the leverage points of an organization can produce the changes we want with a minimum of effort. Some subtlety is involved, because Meadows’ leverage points are expressed at a high level of abstraction.  But applying them to the problem of technical debt management is a promising approach.

Bookmark this post. I’ll be linking to more examples of using leverage points to manage technical debt. So far:

References

[Meadows 1997] Donella H. Meadows. “Places to Intervene in a System,” Whole Earth, Winter 1997.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 28, 2018

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 2018.

Cited in:

[Meadows 2008] Donella H. Meadows and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

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Technical debt use disorder

The American Psychiatric Association has identified a disorder they call Substance Use Disorder (SUD), which includes alcoholism, drug addiction, and other patterns related to substance use [APA 2013]. The research they’ve done can serve well as a model for understanding organizational behavior related to technical debt. In this post I’ll show how to use that model to describe a disorder of organizations that we could call Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD). It’s a pattern in which the organization can’t seem to retire much of its technical debt, or can’t stop incurring increasing burdens of technical debt, even though everyone in the organization realizes—or almost everyone realizes—that technical debt is harming the organization.

A ball and chain, with shackle
A ball and chain, with shackle.  Attaching this device to the legs of prisoners or slaves limits their ability to run, just as technical debt limits the ability of organizations to exploit new opportunities, or even to maintain their current market positions.

A brief description of the American Psychiatric Association’s publication, DSM-5®, might help explain the connection between SUD and TDUD. DSM-5 is the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It’s used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the rest of the world as a guide to diagnosing mental disorders, and as a framework for further research. First published in 1952, the current revision, DSM-5, was released in 2013.

So what does DSM-5 have to do with technical debt?

What distinguishes responsible use of technical debt from irresponsible use is a topic that has generated many papers, conference presentations, and hallway debates over the years. Although there is consensus about the distinction in many cases, the debate continues. Sometimes, though, research in one field suggests paths forward in seemingly unrelated fields. So much thought and study has been invested in DSM-5 that it’s worth a look to see if the technical debt community can harvest something useful from the research in psychiatry.

I looked at DSM because I noticed that organizations that carry significant volumes of technical debt seem to have difficulty retiring it. In some cases, they also have difficulty halting accumulation of technical debt, or even slowing the rate of accumulation. This struck me as similar to the substance use problems some people encounter. I began to wonder whether there might be parallels between the substance use disorders that afflict people—alcoholism, drug addiction, and so on—and the technical debt problems that afflict organizations.

In the table below is one set of parallels I’ve found. The left column of the table is the list of diagnostic criteria for Substance Use Disorder provided in the DSM. The right column is my rewording of those criteria in an attempt to make them apply to how organizations deal with technical debt. I had thought initially that the rewording exercise might be difficult—that it might be a stretch. And here and there, it was a bit of a stretch. But overall, the SUD framework is a very good fit.

Diagnosing technical debt use disorder

Have a look at the table, and then check out the comments below it about how health care professions use the criteria.

DSM-5 Criteria for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)Criteria for Enterprise Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD)
1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
1. Incurring technical debt in larger amounts than you intended and carrying it for longer than you intended.
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.2. Wanting to retire your technical debt or reduce the rate of incurring it but not managing to.
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.3. Spending a lot of time dealing with the consequences of the technical debt you’ve already incurred.
4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.4. Insistent demands on precious resources, causing the enterprise to incur “just a little more” technical debt.
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.5. Not managing to attend to the needs of existing products, services, or technological infra­structure because of the demands resulting from metaphorical interest charges on technical debt.
6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.6. Continuing to carry technical debt, or continuing to incur yet more technical debt, even though it causes toxic conflict among employees, and problems in customer relationships and strategic partnerships.
7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.7. Giving up developing important new products or services, or upgrading critical infrastructure, or pursuing new initiatives because of resource deficits traceable to technical debt service.
8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.8. Incurring technical debt again and again, even when it puts the enterprise in fiscal danger or danger of losing market position.
9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.9. Continuing to incur technical debt, even when you know you have a fiscal or market leadership problem that could have been caused or made worse by technical debt.
10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).10. Needing to incur more technical debt to get the fiscal effect you need—a product delivered or a contract completed.
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.11. Upon attempting to retire existing technical debt, or halting incurring yet more technical debt, fiscal or market position problems develop in short order, which can be relieved only by incurring yet more debt.

In health care, two or three symptoms indicate a mild substance use disorder; four or five symptoms indicate a moderate substance use disorder, and six or more symptoms indicate a severe substance use disorder. Have a look at the right-hand column. How would you score your organization? Can we categorize the severity of an organization’s problem with technical debt using a scale similar to the one health care professionals use for SUD?

Conclusion

Technical debt isn’t inherently evil. Its existence among technological assets isn’t proof of engineering malpractice. For example, we can decide—responsibly—to deliver a system that carries technical debt, provided that we’ve carefully weighed the consequences of incurring that debt against the consequences of delayed delivery, and provided that we have a workable plan for retiring that debt, or for carrying the burden of its MICs.

But organizations can nevertheless become trapped in a cycle of technical debt, unable to make much progress in reducing it. In some cases, business as usual won’t work. Drastic action is required.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

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Cited in:

[Meadows 1997] Donella H. Meadows. “Places to Intervene in a System,” Whole Earth, Winter 1997.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 28, 2018

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 2018.

Cited in:

[Meadows 2008] Donella H. Meadows and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

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Technical debt smell

Technical debt smell would be a useful indicator of the presence of a severe problem of technical debt in an organization. Unfortunately, technical debt doesn’t usually have a smell, as such. But speaking metaphorically, maybe it does have indirect indicators, in the same way that we might say, “I smell a rat” when probing a mystery. Actually, the idea of indirect indicators has a long and storied tradition.  In one scene midway through James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Uncas (who is the actual last of the Mohicans) demonstrates his tracking skills [Cooper 1857]:

The young Mohican bent over the track, and removing the scattered leaves from around the place, he examined it with much of that sort of scrutiny that a money-dealer, in these days of pecuniary doubts, would bestow on a suspected due-bill. At length he arose from his knees, satisfied with the result of the examination.

“The Young Chief Uncas,” 1869 chromolithograph by John Mix Stanley (1814–1872)
“The Young Chief Uncas,” 1869 chromolithograph by John Mix Stanley (1814–1872). Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Uncas then deduces amazing details about the man who left the track he examined—150 years ahead of Sherlock Holmes. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s Hawkeye character, calls the signs Uncas uses tell-tales.

Nature abounds with examples of such skill at noticing tell-tales. Lions, tigers, bears, and all sorts of fauna use their olfactory senses to detect food, predators, mates, offspring, weather, and even the change of seasons. Smell gives them access to information they need, often before sight or hearing can.

That’s probably a part of why smell has become a useful metaphor in software engineering. The technical literature about code smells is vast and growing [Haque 2018]. In a blog post titled “CodeSmell,” Martin Fowler defines code smell as, “…a surface indication that usually corresponds to a deeper problem in the system.” [Fowler 2006] Code smells are traits that are easy to recognize, and often—but not always—indicators of problems.

The concept is also useful in the business domain, though there we use a different metaphor and a different term. In the business context, we call smells red flags. Investopedia defines a red flag as, “…an indicator of potential problems with a security, such as any undesirable characteristic that stands out to an analyst as it pertains to a company’s stock, financial statements or negative news reports.” But I’ve heard the term red flag used in the context of evaluating proposals, assessments, status reports, personnel, and intelligence of all kinds.

Whether called tell-tales, smells, red flags, or just indicators, their value is that they suggest the outlines of something we haven’t yet seen clearly enough to identify with certainty. Their principal attributes are that they’re available at the surface of the domain we’re surveying, they’re relatively cheap to obtain, and, if found, they suggest trouble, and deeper investigation might be worthwhile.

In the software engineering community, technical debt is regarded as a smell that indicates trouble in the system’s software. So we might ask, “Among policymakers, what are the smells that indicate trouble in the organization?” If technical debt is the trouble we’re looking for, what are the cultural smells that indicate that technical debt might be a problem?

Said differently, can we find, or can we develop, a set of attributes of enterprise culture that indicate the degree of severity of an organization’s problems with technical debt?

Here are some possible “technical debt smells”—aspects of enterprise culture that could indicate problems with technical debt:
  • There is a general belief that technical debt afflicts some organizations, but not ours
  • We’re a new startup—just a year old—so we have no technical debt.
  • We don’t build software, therefore no technical debt
  • Non-technical members of our executive team have little if any knowledge of the concept of technical debt
  • No enterprise resources are allocated to educating non-technical employees about technical debt
  • The VP of Marketing doesn’t believe that anything she does could possibly contribute to technical debt
  • There is a general belief that if we have technical debt, it’s due solely to malpractice on the part of engineers
  • We’ve tried to assess the total cost of eliminating all of our technical debt, and found the estimates so unreliable that we decided to leave well enough alone
  • We do believe that technical debt does have costs, but because it only affects the productivity of engineers, we just hired more engineers and decided to live with it

Clearly we could assemble a list of technical debt smells—beliefs about technical debt and behaviors that affect it—and check for their presence in a given organization. But fortunately, some of that work has already been done, albeit in a very different context; That context is a malady psychiatrists call “Substance Use Disorder.” More about that next time.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

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[Cooper 1857] James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans, New York: Bantam Classics, 1982.

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[Fowler 2006] Martin Fowler. “CodeSmell,” Martin Fowler (blog), February 9, 2006.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 6, 2018

Cited in:

[Haque 2018] Md Shariful Haque, Jeff Carver, and Travis Atkison. "Causes, impacts, and detection approaches of code smell: a survey." Proceedings of the ACMSE 2018 Conference. ACM, 2018.

Cited in:

[Meadows 1997] Donella H. Meadows. “Places to Intervene in a System,” Whole Earth, Winter 1997.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 28, 2018

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 2018.

Cited in:

[Meadows 2008] Donella H. Meadows and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

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Cited in:

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Using SMART goals for technical debt reduction

Attempting to reduce the enterprise burden of technical debt by setting so-called “SMART goals” in the obvious way can often produce disappointing results. SMART, due to George T. Doran [Doran 1981], is a widely used approach for expressing management goals. “SMART” is an acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-boxed,” though the last three words (the “ART”) are chosen in various alternative ways. Doran himself used “assignable, realistic, and time-related.”

Prof. George T. Doran (1939-2011), creator of the S.M.A.R.T acronym for setting management objectives
Prof. George T. Doran (1939-2011), creator of the S.M.A.R.T acronym for setting management objectives. Watch a 2010 interview of Prof. Doran at YouTube.
SMART is so embedded in management culture that many assume without investigation that expressing technical debt reduction goals directly using the SMART pattern will produce the desired results. Also embedded in management culture is the aphorism, “You get what you measure.” [Ariely 2010]  [Bouwers 2010] Combining these two ideas in a straightforward way, one might express the technical debt reduction goal as, “Reduce the burden of technical debt by 20% per year for each of the next five years.”

There is ample support for a claim that this “direct” approach to applying the SMART technique will be ineffective. The fundamental issue is that so much of employee behavior affects technical debt indirectly that it overwhelms the effects of employee behaviors that affect technical debt directly. The result is that although the direct approach does cause some employees to adopt desirable behaviors, their impact is not significant enough compared to the effects of the behaviors of employees who see little connection between their own activities and the burden of technical debt, or who are subject to competing constraints on their behaviors that then cause them to act in ways that increase technical debt.

That’s why it’s necessary for management to develop a series of SMART goals that affect behaviors that have indirect effects on technical debt. In the first part of this post, “Setting a direct SMART goal for technical debt reduction is problematic,” I explore the problems inherent in the direct approach. In the second part, “How to set SMART goals for technical debt,” I provide examples of SMART goals that touch on behaviors that have indirect effects on technical debt.

Setting a direct SMART goal for technical debt reduction is problematic

Let’s begin by exploring some of the problems with the direct approach. In this section, I assume that management has set a SMART goal for the enterprise in the form, “Reduce the burden of technical debt by 20% per year for each of the next five years.” But there’s nothing special about the numbers. My comments below apply to the form of the goal, rather than the specific numbers.

The direct approach assumes measurability

To attain a goal of a 20% reduction in technical debt in a given year, we must be able to measure the level of technical debt at the beginning of the year and the level at the end of the year, presumably with confidence in the 90% range or better. Such a measurement with the precision required might not be possible. Moreover, in most cases the probability that such a measurement is possible is low. For these reasons, periodic goals for total technical debt is not a useful management tool.

Consider a simple example. One form of technical debt—and it’s a common form—is missing or incompletely implemented capability. In some instances, the metaphorical principal (MPrin) of a given instance of this debt in the current year can change spontaneously to a dramatically larger value in the following year (or even the following week), due to changes in the underlying asset unrelated to the technical debt, or due to debt contagion, or due to any number of other reasons. When this happens, the technical debt retirement effort for that year can appear to have suffered a serious setback, even though the technical debt retirement teams might have been performing perfectly well.

The direct approach assumes a static principal

With most financial debts, the principal amount is specified at the time of loan origination. Moreover, we can compute the principal at any time given the mathematical formulas specified in the loan agreement.

By contrast, in many cases, the metaphorical principal amount of a technical debt might be neither fixed nor readily computable. We can estimate the MPrin of a given kind of technical debt at a given time, and we can even make forward projections of those estimates. But they are merely estimates, and their error bars can be enormous. See “Policy implications of the properties of MPrin” and “Useful projections of MPrin might not be attainable.”

The direct approach focuses on MPrin, not MICs

Objectives expressed in terms of the volume of technical debt—the total MPrin—are at risk of missing the point. Total MPrin is not what matters most. What matters is MICs—the total cost of carrying the debt. Even more important is the timing of arrival of the MICs.

And like MPrin, MICs can vary in wild and unpredictable ways. For example, the MICs for a piece of technical debt borne by an asset that isn’t undergoing maintenance or enhancement can be zero; in a later time period, when that asset is undergoing enhancement, the MICs can be very high indeed. See  “MICs on technical debt can be unpredictable” for a detailed discussion.

Priority setting for technical debt retirement is most effective when it takes into account the timing of MICs. For example, if we know that we must enhance a particular asset by FY21 Q3, and if we know that it bears technical debt that adds to the cost of the enhancement, retiring that debt in FY20 would be advisable. On the other hand, if that form of technical debt has no effect on MICs for the foreseeable future, retiring that technical debt might not be worth the effort.

The direct approach fails to distinguish legacy technical debt from incremental technical debt

Unless policies are already in place governing the formation of new technical debt—what I call incremental technical debt—technical debt retirement programs might encounter severe difficulty meeting their goals. The technical debt retirement program might simply be unable to keep up with the formation of new technical debt resulting from new development or from ongoing maintenance and enhancement of existing assets.

The direct approach fails to anticipate the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt

Technical debt can sometimes form as a result of innovations, changes in standards, or changes in regulations that occur entirely external to the enterprise. I call such technical debt enterprise-exogenous. When this happens, the technical debt retirement effort can appear to have suffered a serious setback, even though the technical debt retirement teams might have been performing perfectly well. Before initiating a technical debt reduction program, it’s wise to first deploy a program that’s capable of retiring technical debt at a pace that at least equals the pace of formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt.

Incurring technical debt is sometimes the responsible thing to do

At times, incurring technical debt is prudent. In some situations, accepting the debt you’ve incurred—even for the long term—might be called for. Because strict goals about total technical debt can lead to reluctance to incur debt that has a legitimate  business purpose, whatever goals are set for total technical debt must be nuanced enough to deal with these situations. Goals for total technical debt that adhere strictly to the SMART goal pattern sometimes lack the necessary level of nuance.

How to set SMART goals for technical debt

SMART goals can work for technical debt management, but we must express them in ways that are more closely related to behavioral choices. Here are some examples of SMART goals that can be effective elements of the technical debt management program. Some of these examples are admittedly incomplete. For example,  I offer no proof of assignability, attainability, or realism, because they can vary from organization to organization, or because the goal in question must be distributed across multiple organizational elements in ways peculiar to the organization.

At least 30% of incremental technical debt will be secured technical debt at the end of Year 1; 60% by the end of Year 2

Incremental technical debt is technical debt that’s incurred in the course of work currently underway or just recently completed. Because it’s so well understood, its MPrin can be estimated with higher precision than is usually possible with legacy technical debt. That precision is needed for defining the collateral and resources used to secure the debt.

A secured technical debt, like a secured financial debt, is one for which the enterprise reserves the resources needed to retire the debt. However, unlike a financial debt, the resources required to retire a technical debt might not be purely financial. Beyond financial resources, they might include particular staff, equipment, test beds, and downtime. The commitment might extend beyond the current fiscal period. Secured technical debt is a powerful means of driving down total technical debt burden, but it might require modification of internal budget management processes and fiscal reporting. Policymakers can help in designing and deploying the necessary changes.

Within one year, at least 50% of all incremental technical debt will be retired within one year of its origination; 70% within 18 months

This goal also exploits the fact that incremental technical debt can be estimated with relatively high precision. As a goal, it builds on the goal above by requiring that the resources pledged to retire incremental debts actually be expended as intended.

Within one year, all engineers and their direct supervisors will be educated in basic technical debt concepts

The educational materials will be developed in the next five months and piloted with 10% of the technical staff within seven months. The material will include an online proficiency test that 90% of engineers will have successfully passed within a year.

Within one year, 90% of project plans will include projections of the MPrin of the incremental technical debt they expect to generate for each delivery cycle

This information is useful for making forward projections of resources needed to secure incremental technical debt. Tracking the accuracy of these projections helps project planners improve their estimates.

Within one year, initiate a practice of identifying the top five forms of legacy technical debt, ranked by the volume of the contagion

Debt contagion is the propagation of a given form of technical debt by creating new system elements or assets in forms compatible with elements already identified as technical debt. By examining the body of incremental technical debt created enterprise-wide in a given time period (say, by fiscal quarter), we can determine the portion of that incremental debt that results from contagion, for each type of contagious legacy technical debt. This data is needed to identify the most contagious forms of legacy technical debt. They are prime candidates for debt retirement.

Within one year, initiate an industrial intelligence practice that is responsible for projecting the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt

This group must have a sophisticated grasp of the technologies in use within the enterprise that already bear enterprise-exogenous technical debt, or which could be subject to the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt. Its responsibilities cover enterprise products and services, as well as enterprise infrastructure. It issues advisories as needed, and an annual forecast. The group is also responsible for recommending and monitoring participation in industrial standards organizations. The group reports to the CIO or CTO.

References

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