Technical debt use disorder

The American Psychiatric Association has identified a disorder they call Substance Use Disorder (SUD), which includes alcoholism, drug addiction, and other patterns related to substance use [APA 2013]. The research they’ve done can serve well as a model for understanding organizational behavior related to technical debt. In this post I’ll show how to use that model to describe a disorder of organizations that we could call Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD). It’s a pattern in which the organization can’t seem to retire much of its technical debt, or can’t stop incurring increasing burdens of technical debt, even though everyone in the organization realizes—or almost everyone realizes—that technical debt is harming the organization.

A ball and chain, with shackle
A ball and chain, with shackle.  Attaching this device to the legs of prisoners or slaves limits their ability to run, just as technical debt limits the ability of organizations to exploit new opportunities, or even to maintain their current market positions.

A brief description of the American Psychiatric Association’s publication, DSM-5®, might help explain the connection between SUD and TDUD. DSM-5 is the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It’s used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the rest of the world as a guide to diagnosing mental disorders, and as a framework for further research. First published in 1952, the current revision, DSM-5, was released in 2013.

So what does DSM-5 have to do with technical debt?

What distinguishes responsible use of technical debt from irresponsible use is a topic that has generated many papers, conference presentations, and hallway debates over the years. Although there is consensus about the distinction in many cases, the debate continues. Sometimes, though, research in one field suggests paths forward in seemingly unrelated fields. So much thought and study has been invested in DSM-5 that it’s worth a look to see if the technical debt community can harvest something useful from the research in psychiatry.

I looked at DSM because I noticed that organizations that carry significant volumes of technical debt seem to have difficulty retiring it. In some cases, they also have difficulty halting accumulation of technical debt, or even slowing the rate of accumulation. This struck me as similar to the substance use problems some people encounter. I began to wonder whether there might be parallels between the substance use disorders that afflict people—alcoholism, drug addiction, and so on—and the technical debt problems that afflict organizations.

In the table below is one set of parallels I’ve found. The left column of the table is the list of diagnostic criteria for Substance Use Disorder provided in the DSM. The right column is my rewording of those criteria in an attempt to make them apply to how organizations deal with technical debt. I had thought initially that the rewording exercise might be difficult—that it might be a stretch. And here and there, it was a bit of a stretch. But overall, the SUD framework is a very good fit.

Diagnosing technical debt use disorder

Have a look at the table, and then check out the comments below it about how health care professions use the criteria.

DSM-5 Criteria for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)Criteria for Enterprise Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD)
1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
1. Incurring technical debt in larger amounts than you intended and carrying it for longer than you intended.
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.2. Wanting to retire your technical debt or reduce the rate of incurring it but not managing to.
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.3. Spending a lot of time dealing with the consequences of the technical debt you’ve already incurred.
4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.4. Insistent demands on precious resources, causing the enterprise to incur “just a little more” technical debt.
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.5. Not managing to attend to the needs of existing products, services, or technological infra­structure because of the demands resulting from metaphorical interest charges on technical debt.
6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.6. Continuing to carry technical debt, or continuing to incur yet more technical debt, even though it causes toxic conflict among employees, and problems in customer relationships and strategic partnerships.
7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.7. Giving up developing important new products or services, or upgrading critical infrastructure, or pursuing new initiatives because of resource deficits traceable to technical debt service.
8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.8. Incurring technical debt again and again, even when it puts the enterprise in fiscal danger or danger of losing market position.
9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.9. Continuing to incur technical debt, even when you know you have a fiscal or market leadership problem that could have been caused or made worse by technical debt.
10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).10. Needing to incur more technical debt to get the fiscal effect you need—a product delivered or a contract completed.
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.11. Upon attempting to retire existing technical debt, or halting incurring yet more technical debt, fiscal or market position problems develop in short order, which can be relieved only by incurring yet more debt.

In health care, two or three symptoms indicate a mild substance use disorder; four or five symptoms indicate a moderate substance use disorder, and six or more symptoms indicate a severe substance use disorder. Have a look at the right-hand column. How would you score your organization? Can we categorize the severity of an organization’s problem with technical debt using a scale similar to the one health care professionals use for SUD?

Conclusion

Technical debt isn’t inherently evil. Its existence among technological assets isn’t proof of engineering malpractice. For example, we can decide—responsibly—to deliver a system that carries technical debt, provided that we’ve carefully weighed the consequences of incurring that debt against the consequences of delayed delivery, and provided that we have a workable plan for retiring that debt, or for carrying the burden of its MICs.

But organizations can nevertheless become trapped in a cycle of technical debt, unable to make much progress in reducing it. In some cases, business as usual won’t work. Drastic action is required.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

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