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Volume 16, Issue 51;   December 21, 2016: Problem Displacement and Technical Debt

Problem Displacement and Technical Debt

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Last updated: November 21, 2018

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 [Jänicke 1990]. 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

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Footnotes

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

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