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 developAnd 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.” libcom.org.
Available: here; Retrieved: May 9, 2017.
Other posts in this thread
- Nontechnical precursors of nonstrategic technical debt
- Failure to communicate long-term business strategy
- Failure to communicate the technical debt concept
- Technological communication risk
- Team composition volatility
- The Dunning-Kruger effect can lead to technical debt
- Self-sustaining technical knowledge deficits during contract negotiations
- Performance management systems and technical debt
- Stovepiping can lead to technical debt
- Unrealistic definition of done
- Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition
- The fundamental attribution error
- Feature bias: unbalanced concern for capability vs. sustainability
- Unrealistic optimism: the planning fallacy and the n-person prisoner’s dilemma
- Confirmation bias and technical debt
- How outsourcing leads to increasing technical debt
- How budget depletion leads to technical debt
- Contract restrictions can lead to technical debt
- Organizational psychopathy: career advancement by surfing the debt tsunami
- The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction
- The Broken Windows theory of technical debt is broken
- Malfeasance can lead to new technical debt