How budget depletion leads to technical debt

Some projects undergo budget depletion exercises when their budgets are reduced, or when there’s evidence that the funds remaining will be insufficient to complete the work originally planned. Formats vary, but the typical goal of these exercises is downscoping — removing, relaxing, deferring, or suspending some requirements. Since funds are limited, downscoping is often executed in a manner that leads to technical debt.

The Old River Control Complex on the Mississippi River
The Old River Control Complex on the Mississippi River. Built and operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) the Old River Control Complex is used for controlling the flow from the Mississippi into a distributary known as the Atchafalaya River. Were it not for this facility, the Mississippi would long ago have rerouted itself into the Atchafalaya, which has a much steeper gradient to the ocean. Since that change would have deprived New Orleans and all the industrial facilities along the lower Mississippi of access to the water and navigational channels they now enjoy, USACE maintains a complex of flow control facilities to prevent Nature taking its course, and to prevent flooding along the lower Mississippi.
The industrial facilities of the lower Mississippi constitute a technical debt, in the sense that their existence is no longer compatible with the “update” Nature is trying to deploy, in the form of rerouting the flow of water from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya. Because our national budget doesn’t allow for repositioning the city of New Orleans and all the industrial facilities from the lower Mississippi to somewhere along the Atchafalaya, we’ve elected to redirect the flow of water from the course Nature prefers to a course more compatible with the existing industrial base. Operating and maintaining the Old River Control Complex, together with a multitude of levees, dredging projects, and gates throughout lower Louisiana, are the MICs we pay for the technical debt that is the outdated position of the city of New Orleans and its associated industrial base.
For more about Atchafalaya, see the famous New Yorker article by John McPhee [MacFee 1987]. Photo courtesy USACE
Here’s an illustrative scenario. At the time downscoping begins, the work product might contain incomplete implementations of items that are to be removed from the list of objectives. A most insidious type of debt, and most difficult to detect, consists of accommodations contained in surviving artifacts that are no longer needed because the items they were intended to support have been cancelled. This class of technical debt is difficult to detect because the affected system components appear to be merely overly complicated. Recognizing it as a residual of a cancelled capability requires knowledge of its history. Unless these artifacts are documented at the time of the downscoping, that knowledge may be lost.

Other items of technical debt that arise from budget depletion include tests that no longer need to be executed, or documentation that’s no longer consistent with the rest of the work product, or user interface artifacts no longer needed. When budgets become sufficiently tight, funds aren’t available for documenting these items of technical debt as debt, and the enterprise can lose track of them when team members move on or are reassigned.

In some instances, budget depletion takes effect even before the work begins. This happens, for example, when project champions unwittingly underestimate costs in order to obtain approval for the work they have in mind. The unreasonableness of the budget becomes clear soon after the budget is approved, and the effects described above take hold soon thereafter.

Budget depletion can also have some of the same effects as schedule pressure. When the team devises the downscoping plan, it must make choices about what to include in the revised project objectives. In some cases, the desire to include some work can bias estimates of the effort required to execute it. If the team underestimates the work involved, the result is increased pressure to perform that work. With increased pressure comes technical debt. See “With all deliberate urgency” for more.

A policy that could limit technical debt formation in response to budget depletion would require identifying the technical debt such action creates, and later retiring that debt. Because these actions do require resources, they consume some of the savings that were supposed to accrue from downscoping. In some cases, they could consume that amount in its entirety, or more. Most decision-makers probably over-estimate the effectiveness of the downscoping strategy. Often, it simply reduces current expenses by trading them for increased technical debt, which raises future expenses and decreases opportunities in future periods.


[MacFee 1987] John MacFee. “Atchafalaya,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1987.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

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