Adopt an enterprise-wide definition of technical debt

An enterprise-wide definition of technical debt is essential because effective technical debt management requires cooperation from almost everyone. Absent a shared definition of technical debt, controversy can develop, especially among those who have previously encountered the concept—namely, among technologists. Policymakers can make invaluable contributions to the design of the cultural transformation that will enable control of technical debt.

A physical expression of shared commitment, essential to adopting an enterprise-wide definition of technical debt
A physical expression of shared commitment. Effective management of technical debt requires both a shared understanding of what it is and a shared commitment to do what’s required to get control of it.

Li et al. [Li 2015] found that defining what is and what is not technical debt remains a question at issue in the software engineering literature. Even if we restrict the discussion to software constructed in-house, opinions about what constitutes technical debt do differ. The authors found that in the literature of technical debt, “The term ‘debt’ has been used in different ways by different people, which leads to ambiguous interpretation of the term.”

This finding is perhaps the most significant for policymakers, because it suggests that implementing a technical debt management regime will require forging an organizational consensus about the meaning of the term technical debt. The people of most organizations come from a broad array of different backgrounds. Some have little knowledge of technical debt, and therefore have no preconceptions. But those who are aware of the issue, who are mainly technologists and their managers, probably interpret the term technical debtin a variety of ways. Because some of those who do have awareness of the term are likely to have strong opinions about its meaning, one can anticipate a need to resolve these differences of opinion early in the effort to gain control of technical debt.

Some technical terms, like RAID,byte, compiler, and kilowatt,have standard definitions that are widely accepted. Although the term technical debthas found wide use, there is no standard definition for it. What some people categorize as technical debt, others do not. Those who are accustomed to working with terms that have precise, widely accepted definitions might tend to assume that the term technical debtdoes have (or should have) one as well. This assumption can create some difficulty for people who do not realize that others might not share their views as to the definition of the term.

Policymakers must be aware that there is a lack of consensus about the definition of technical debt. Our definition, crafted specially for the use of policymakers, might seem unusually broad to technologists and engineers. For that reason alone, it’s advisable to become familiar with the various ways the term is used by technologists, because understanding their perspective is essential to formulating sound policy deserving of their respect.


[Li 2015] Z. Li, P. Avgeriou, and P. Liang. “A systematic mapping study on technical debt and its management,” Journal of Systems and Software 101, 193-220, 2015.

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