Zero tolerance and work-to-rule create adversarial cultures

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:16 pm

Defining technical debt explicitly enough for project objectives is difficult. Confronted with this difficulty, some internal customers of technologists adopt a zero-tolerance approach to technical debt. But rarely do they define technical debt explicitly. Post-delivery, when customers discover technical debt, they hold technologists responsible. They do so even in cases when no one could have predicted that a specific artifact would eventually become technical debt. This establishes an adversarial culture in which technologists contend with their internal customers. To defend themselves, technologists sometimes adopt a work-to-rule approach to their work.

How adversarial cultures develop

Delayed or cancelled flights can indicate that pilots or others are engaged in a work-to-rule action
Trouble at the airport. When airline pilots engage in work-to-rule actions, the immediate result can be large numbers of delayed or cancelled flights. The longer-term result might be beneficial to pilots, the airline, and the public, but only if labor peace can be restored, and the damage to the flying public can be overcome. So it is with work-to-rule deliveries as a way of dealing with zero-tolerance technical debt policies. The organization must overcome the adversarial culture that results from indiscriminate attempts to control technical debt. Technologists do gain some measure of protection by working to rule, but the longer-term benefit of the organization’s learning to manage technical debt arrives only if the adversarial culture can be overcome. Image (cc) Hotelstvedi courtesy Wikimedia.
And that’s when the trouble begins.

Within this adversarial dynamic, technologists try to protect themselves against future recriminations by “working to rule.” They perform only work that the internal customer specifies. If they find something else that needs work, they perform that work only if they successfully obtain the customer’s approval. Some customers continue to adhere to zero-tolerance policies with respect to technical debt. But engineers cannot meet such non-specific requirements. Because technologists are “working to rule,” they use the ambiguity of the zero-tolerance requirement to assert that they performed all explicitly specified work. This level of performance is analogous to the work-to-rule actions of some employees involved in labor disputes with their employers. In these actions, employees are literally in compliance with the requirements of the employer, but only literally [LIBCom 2006].

Preventing formation of an adversarial culture

Requiring that deliverables be free of technical debt contributes to formation of an adversarial culture. In such cultures the adversaries are the technologists and their internal customers. Shedding that adversarial culture can be difficult once it sets in. Compelling employees, vendors, or contractors to deliver work that’s free of all technical debt is therefore unlikely to succeed. Whether employees or contractors perform the work in-house, or the work is outsourced, the results can be problematic. In the context of an adversarial culture, deliverables that meet the minimum possible interpretation of the stated objectives are almost certain to carry unacceptable levels of technical debt. What can we do to prevent this?

To avoid creating an adversarial culture, we can specify in project objectives the total removal of some kinds of technical debt. To ensure steady progress, develop a statement of objectives that includes complete retirement of at least one well-defined class of technical debt. Emphasize debt classes that have the highest anticipated MICs in the near term. Address other well-defined classes of technical debt on a best-effort basis.

We must accept as the “cost of doing business,” any other forms of technical debt that remain at the end of a given project. We must also accept that some artifacts might later become technical debt, even though they aren’t at present. We’ll get to them, but unfortunately, not this time.


[LIBCom 2006] “Work-to-rule: a guide.”

Available: here; Retrieved: May 9, 2017.

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