Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 51;   December 21, 2016: Problem Displacement and Technical Debt

Problem Displacement and Technical Debt

by

The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another. It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?
A diagrammatic representation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor

A diagrammatic representation of the operation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor. Ending years of non-compliance with federal water treatment regulations by Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority began partial operation of the plant in 1995. It became fully operational in 2000.

View a larger image.

Addressing the problem of sewage treatment necessarily requires confronting the question of what to do with the various products it produces, while avoiding generating new problems. This diagram, and the explanation that accompanies it at the MWRA Web site, shows how the plant design solves the sewage problem while it avoids creating new problems. For example, the methane generated in the sewage digesters is collected and used in Deer Island's on-site power plant to create steam that supplies hot water and heat for the facility. This process is one of many other renewable energy processes the plant employs.

Image courtesy Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

In A diagrammatic representation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston Harborenvironmental science, and elsewhere, the term problem displacement describes what happens when solving a given problem creates a different problem. For example, sewage sludge disposal by incineration solves the sewage sludge disposal problem, but one consequence is air pollution [1]. The term problem displacement is possibly a misnomer, because displacement typically refers to moving from one place to another. In most cases of problem displacement, the created problem or problems usually replace the original problem. For this reason, in these circumstances, I prefer the term problem replacement.

Problem replacement can also apply to problem solutions in organizations. It can be useful as a management tool, because it can clarify organizational status by accounting more accurately for all the costs of solving a problem. As an example, consider technical debt.

Technical debt is the collection of technology artifacts, arising by any mechanism, which we would like to revise or replace for sound engineering reasons. In many cases, if not most, organizations incur new technical debt as a consequence of solving some other problem. In our terms, much technical debt is the result of problem replacement.

For concreteness, consider upgrading a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Suppose that because of financial pressures, the company decides not to upgrade the hardware that supports the CRM software. And suppose further, as is common, that the latest version of the CRM software requires a hardware upgrade. Consequently, upgrading the CRM software is impossible, which means that CRM system users must maintain existing applications — and develop new ones — based on the (now outdated) CRM software. They must later repeat that work when the new system is installed. It therefore comprises technical debt.

The debt in this example is not due to shoddy workmanship or shortcuts in implementing CRM applications. Rather, it's the direct result of "solving" the company's financial problems by postponing a hardware upgrade. It's an example of problem replacement.

In most In most organizations, the costs of
retiring software technical debt are
usually charged to the Information
Technology (IT) function. That
practice can obscure the
actual source of the problem.
organizations, the costs of retiring software technical debts of this kind are usually charged to the Information Technology (IT) function. In our example, the cost of IT is thus represented as higher than it actually would be without problem replacement. Likewise, the cost of financial management is correspondingly represented as lower than it would be without problem replacement. A more accurate accounting would allocate to the financial management function, rather than to IT, the costs of carrying and eventually retiring the technical debt.

Because problem replacement scenarios are common in organizations, they account for a significant fraction of technical debt. The overstatement of the costs of the IT function, and the corresponding understatement of the costs of other enterprise elements, make responsible management of the enterprise difficult.

Some replacement problems can be termed unintended consequences. Perhaps some technical debt is unintentional. But some solutions that entail problem replacement, especially those that burden political rivals, are most intentional indeed. We'll explore examples of that phenomenon next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Problem Displacement by Intention  Next Issue

[1]
Martin Jänicke, State Failure: The Impotence of Politics in Industrial Society, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990. p.47. Order from Amazon

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendKIFmpIHtZyAIJinner@ChacgkjMsAgiPZeyeXLtoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativityAsking Brilliant Questions
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
Senator Carter Glass (Democrat of Virginia) and Representative Henry B. Steagall (Democrat, Alabama Third), the co-sponsors of the Glass-Steagall ActExploiting Failed Ideas
When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
The U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, FloridaWishful Thinking and Perception: Part II
Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeComing April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016And on April 12: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen? Available here and by RSS on April 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZFVHUXhoLtmxUvzSner@ChacsuUbFYJEPAiAQsUfoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.