Team composition volatility

Team composition volatility can interfere with technical debt retirement. In many organizations, project team composition is rarely fixed from beginning to end. In most teams, people who have special knowledge cycle in and out as the work requires. Although these changes in team composition might not interfere with completing a team’s primary objectives, they can affect the team’s ability to retire technical debt that the team incurs 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.

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 project, recognizing how things should have been done can become more difficult.

Changes in team composition can increase the likelihood of incurring non-strategic incremental technical debt, and increase the likelihood of failing to retire all legacy debt specified in the team’s objectives.

Most product development, maintenance, and enhancement is carried out in groups we call teams. In this context, team is usually defined as, “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 it would have been more effective than the ones that were chosen. The recognition might come several months, or even years, after the work affected was conceived or even completed.

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 in need of their talents and abilities. The people who now realize “how we should have done it” might not be themselves capable 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 performed by the people no longer on the team comprises incremental technical debt. Because of team composition volatility, recognizing or retiring that incremental technical debt can be difficult.

Team composition volatility can also interfere with retiring legacy technical debt. Some projects are specifically charged with retiring a class or classes of legacy technical debt. But others with different objectives might also be charged with retiring instances of specific kinds of legacy technical debt as they encounter them. When team members with special knowledge required for the team’s primary objectives are reassigned, some legacy technical debt can remain un-retired, if retiring that debt from the context in which it occurs requires their special knowledge, and 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 is viewed as subordinate to other business objectives.

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

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