Team composition volatility

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 07:51 pm

Now we know what we should have done.
Now we know what we should have done.” This is one kind of incremental technical debt. When the composition of a development team changes over the course of a project, recognizing how the team should have been done things can become more difficult.

Team composition volatility can interfere with technical debt retirement. In many organizations, project team composition evolves from the beginning of the project to its end. In most teams, people who have special knowledge cycle in and out as the work requires. These changes in team composition might not interfere with completing a team’s primary objectives.

But these changes can affect the team’s ability to retire technical debt incurred over the life of the project. Changes in team composition can also limit the team’s ability to retire specified legacy technical debt that it encounters while working toward its primary objectives.

The likelihood of incurring nonstrategic incremental technical debt can also increase when team composition changes. Changes can also reduce the likelihood of retiring all legacy debt specified in the team’s objectives.

Why team composition volatility matters for incremental technical debt

Groups we call teams are responsible for carrying out most product development, maintenance, and enhancement. In this context, team usually refers to, “a small group of interdependent individuals who share responsibility for outcomes.” [Hollenbeck 2012] However, as Hollenbeck, et al., observe, teams vary widely in both skill differentiation and composition stability. My sense is that both factors can potentially influence a team’s ability to retire incremental technical debt. They also affect its ability to achieve its objectives with respect to retiring legacy technical debt.

For example, consider what Fowler calls the Inadvertent/Prudent class of technical debt—“Now we know how we should have done it.” [Fowler 2009] In a project of significant size, some might recognize that different approaches to all or parts of the project would have been better choices. The recognition might come several months or years after completion of the work.

But for the moment, consider only cases in which the recognition occurs during the project, or shortly after completion. In these cases, the people who performed that work might have moved on to other teams. The people who now realize “how we should have done it” might themselves be incapable of making the needed changes, even if they have the budget or time to do the work. Or worse, they might not have the knowledge needed to recognize that a different approach would have been more effective. In either case, recognized or not, the work in question comprises incremental technical debt. Because of team composition volatility, recognizing or retiring that incremental technical debt can be difficult.

Why team composition volatility matters for retiring legacy technical debt

Team composition volatility can also interfere with retiring legacy technical debt. Some projects have specific goals of retiring a class or classes of legacy technical debt. But others with different objectives might also be charged with retiring instances of legacy technical debt as they encounter them. When we reassign team members who have special knowledge required for the team’s primary objectives, some legacy technical debt can remain extant, if retiring that debt requires their special knowledge. It can also remain extant if the reassignment occurs before they can complete the legacy debt retirement. This mechanism is more likely to occur when the legacy debt retirement objective seems subordinate to other business objectives.

Last words

Keeping team membership stable has big advantages relative the technical debt management. Said differently, organizations that must shuffle people from team to team as a consequence of controlling costs by reducing headcount can pay big penalties in terms of increasing loads of technical debt.


[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Hollenbeck 2012] John R. Hollenbeck, Bianca Beersma, and Maartje E. Schouten. “Beyond Team Types and Taxonomies: A Dimensional Scaling Conceptualization for Team Description,” Academy of Management Review, 37:1, 82–106, 2012. doi:10.5465/amr.2010.0181

Available: here; Retrieved: July 8, 2017

Cited in:

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