With all deliberate urgency

One of the drivers of technical debt—one of the most important generators of technical debt—is crossing the fine line from urgency to panic when it comes to deadlines.

On October 12, 2017, the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals met at the Nationals’ home field for Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series (American baseball playoffs). At that point, the series was tied 2-2. It was a high-pressure game that would decide the division championship. By the end of the second inning, the Nationals led 4-1. They went on to lose, 9-8.

Pressure situations are tough.

Dusty Baker as Manager of the Washington Nationals in 2017
Dusty Baker (center) as Manager of the Washington Nationals, at a game at the home field of the Baltimore Orioles, May 8, 2017. At the right is Davey Lopes, the first base coach. I can’t identify the man on the left. If you can, let me know. Photo (cc) Keith Allison courtesy Wikimedia
After losing the first game of the series, Dusty Baker, the Nationals’ manager, conducted a press conference before Game 2. A difficult situation for any manager. He’s quoted [Gonzales 2017] as saying, “There’s a fine line between urgency and panic, and the thing that you never want to do, you never want to panic.”

These are words of wisdom that apply just as well in business, especially with respect to technical debt. Consider this scenario:

Sales at Unbelievable Growth, Inc.,(UGI) have been only fair this fiscal year—far from “unbelievable.” But a new product is under development, an app for Android and iPhone called StrawIntoGold 1.0. It has an uncanny ability to predict the price movements of specific common stocks over the next 60 seconds. (This is totally fictitious—don’t bother surfing for UGI or StrawIntoGold) Unfortunately, StrawIntoGold development is far behind schedule. After the all-hands meeting yesterday, the core engineering team had a three-hour meeting of its own. They found some ways to wrap things up in the next ten days. They think they can do it, but they’ll be eliminating some testing, and performing other tests manually. And they plan to re-use some code from the beta version that they had previously decided to replace.

If the UGI engineers succeed, they will be incurring significant technical debt. They have crossed the “urgency line,” and although it’s too soon to say definitively that they’ve panicked, my personal experience suggests that the risk of reaching some degree of panic is high. And that risk will get higher as the deadline approaches.

Urgency focuses our energy and attention. As Dusty Baker says, “You have to be of the coolness of mind, but then bring desire to succeed in your heart, and then respond.” When urgency is deliberate, urgency gets the job done. Deliberate urgency is what Kotter calls healthy urgency [Kotter 2014].

Panic is something else. It can cause us to choose to cut corners, a choice commonly cited as a source of technical debt. When it makes clear thinking difficult, it impedes memory, increases error rates, reduces attention spans, and contributes to toxic conflict. In short, it makes any kind of brainwork more difficult, less effective, and less reliable.

It’s reasonable to suppose that panic isn’t helpful in avoiding or removing technical debt in any kind of technological asset. It’s just as reasonable to suppose that panic actually contributes to technical debt formation and persistence.

Urgency, good. Panic, bad. Once you let panic into an organization’s culture, the effect on technical debt is predictable. Over time, technical debt will increase out of control.

So what alternatives do the UGI engineers have? In most organizations, they would probably have no alternative. StrawIntoGold 1.0 would be offered to customers in a very sorry state that might not affect its performance, but its maintainability—its sustainability—would be poor. The prospects for version 2.0 would not be bright.

But some organizations do find alternative approaches. What they do, in effect, is redefine the word “done” as it applies to the StrawIntoGold 1.0 product. In that redefined form, “done” has two stages.

In Stage 1, UGI does release StrawIntoGold 1.0, despite its unsustainable state. But then UGI management makes a clever decision. Instead of moving the StrawIntoGold team on to begin version 2.0, or what is worse, reassigning the team members to other projects, UGI management charters the StrawIntoGold 1.0 team with retiring the technical debt they incurred to meet the version 1.0 deadline. They restrict the team’s efforts to technical debt retirement only, so that they produce a version 1.1 that is identical to version 1.0 from the customer perspective. That becomes Stage 2 of “done.” They defer any work on version 2.0, because starting 2.0 would cause fragmentation of the 1.0 team. StrawIntoGold 1.0 is thenceforth shelved, and any new orders are filled with StrawIntoGold 1.1. Then work on version 2.0 begins.

By carefully managing their technical debt, UGI can make its products more sustainable in the very dynamic mobile device app market. They exploit urgency deliberately. They do not panic. Then, at UGI, situations like the one that hit StrawIntoGold 1.0 become rare.

Do you have any teams that have crossed the fine line between urgency and panic?

References

[Gonzales 2017] Mark Gonzales. “Nationals manager Dusty Baker preaches calm vs. Cubs,” ChicagoTribune.com, October 7, 2017.

Available: here Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

[Kotter 2014] John P. Kotter. “To Create Healthy Urgency, Focus on a Big Opportunity,” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2014.

Available: here Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

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