Keynote, Workshop, or Presentation:
Technical Debt for Policymakers: Nine Strategies

Last updated on July 2nd, 2021 at 08:16 am

As the total burden of technical debt increases, the importance of technical debt management increases. But adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt is a complex undertaking. Since causes of technical debt can be anywhere in the organization, controlling technical debt requires changes beyond the scale of the project team. The needed changes affect almost every element of the enterprise, and policymakers must play a critical role. This program explores the need for a whole-organization approach to technical debt management, and suggests nine strategies to incorporate in that approach.

The essential messages are two. First, expecting project teams alone to manage technical debt effectively isn’t realistic. Even teams that actively try to do so are caught in an organizational situation that limits their effectiveness. Second, for most organizations, effectively managing technical debt requires policy changes that project teams aren’t authorized to make. But many of those who do have the authority to make the needed changes lack the technical knowledge needed to craft policy wisely. What is needed is effective collaboration between technologists and senior managers.

The program examines a set of policy recommendations that can help organizations gain control of their technical debt portfolios.
The program is based on my work, “Managing Technical Debt: Nine Policy Recommendations,” Cutter Consortium Agile Product Management & Software Engineering, 2017.

The Principle of Accountability

Organizational policy is of little use if gaining compliance requires the continuous focused attention of senior management. This is particularly true when the policy involves behavior related to technology and technology-rich decisions, as is the case with managing technical debt. The problem is too complex—and the decisions too numerous—for enforcement-based mechanisms to work. Effective technical debt management policy must provide a framework that supports new behaviors leading to rationalizing technical debt formation.

The nine strategy recommendations listed below work as a whole to implement what I call “The Principle of Accountability” as it applies to technical debt. Here is a sample statement of that principle:

Those whose decisions or actions cause the enterprise to incur technical debt are accountable for securing the resources needed to retire that debt, and for supplying compensating resources to those within the enterprise, or among its customers, who suffer depressed operational effectiveness during the time that technical debt is outstanding.

The nine recommendations

Below are brief summaries of the nine strategies recommended for organizations intent on controlling the formation and persistence of technical debt. The nine recommendations are:

1. Adopt a shared concept vocabulary

Because we cannot manage what we cannot discuss, managing technical debt responsibly requires a shared concept vocabulary. Standard meanings for words and phrases such as Done, technical debt, and development-induced discovery enable the people of the organization to converse effectively at a high level.

2. Accept that technical debt is a fact of technological life

Although we can avoid some technical debt, we cannot avoid it all. Some technical debt arises because of advances external to the enterprise, beyond its control. Development-induced or field-revealed discoveries are especially difficult to avoid.

3. Track the cost of carrying technical debt

The cost of retiring a particular class of technical debt is significant only when planning or setting priorities for debt retirement. At all other times, knowing that cost has little management value. What does matter is the cost of carrying that technical debt—the metaphorical interest charges. They can fluctuate wildly.

4. Assign accountability for classes of technical debt

Some technical debt results from actions within the enterprise; some does not. To control the formation of new technical debt from internal causes, hold people accountable for the debt their actions generate.

5. Communicate the what, not the how

Effective technical debt management policy communicates goals, and a framework within which they will be achieved, without prescribing explicitly how to achieve them. Technical debt management policies that specify criteria for making decisions are unlikely to work because of the complexity of modern technologies and the rapid pace of change. An approach that empowers practitioners requires much less centralized situational awareness.

6. Require that deliberately incurred technical debt be secured

In the financial realm, secured debt is debt whose repayment is guaranteed by specifically pledged assets. By analogy, secured technical debt is technical debt for which resources have been allocated to guarantee retirement. Deliberately incurred technical debt, whether incurred strategically or recklessly, must be secured.

7. Establish a technical debt arbitration panel

A Technical Debt Management Framework depends on people negotiating with each other about allocating resources to secure or retire technical debt. Occasionally, when parties are unable to reach consensus, the technical debt arbitration panel works with them to find a resolution.

8. Document long-term strategic technical debt

Because of staff volatility, failure to document long-term technical debt leads to loss of understanding of what it is, why it’s debt, why it was incurred, why it’s long term, where it is, and how it should be retired. Documentation captures this information.

9. Adopt technical debt ratings

Debt that has high interest costs must be rated so high that it is retired immediately. For
example, debt in any assets related to cybersecurity would probably have associated with it a high interest charge because the cost of failures can be high enough to threaten the entire enterprise.

Learning model

We usually think of technical debt management skills as rather technical—free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite our most sincere beliefs, taking a project organization to the next level of performance does require learning to apply technical debt management skills even in situations of high emotional content. That’s why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

The target audience consists of two groups. Group A includes people who work on products or technical infrastructure that can carry technical debt. People in these roles are project sponsors, program managers, project managers, business analysts, architects, and project team members. Group B includes people who make or influence decisions about organizational policy and resource allocation across multiple projects. Examples include executives, functional managers, policymakers, and strategists. All experience levels can benefit.

Personal take-aways depend on part of the target audience to which one belongs. Members of Group A likely will gain greatest benefit from understanding the strategies listed below. Implementation would of course require collaborating with members of both groups.

Members of Group B likely will gain greatest befit from understanding the strategies listed below. Implementation would of course require collaborating with members of both groups.

Program format and duration

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, or presentation. Available durations range from one hour to two days. The shorter formats are keynotes or presentations with some limited interaction. The longer formats are workshops. They provide optimum value and include simulations of organizations as they grapple with the challenges of managing technical debt.