Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 52;   December 27, 2017:

On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble

by

When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineers

An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineers. You can't see them, because they're at least 4,000 miles away in four locations.

When we discover an issue within our organizations, two intertwined imperatives demand attention: "How did this happen?" and "What do we do about it?" As we address the former question, almost inevitably we begin to assign responsibility for creating the problem. Even if we succeed in avoiding blamefests [Brenner 2005], we can still make gross errors. To understand how many traps await us on the path to Truth, consider the example of technical debt.

Technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or its absence, to lower productivity or to a higher probability of defects in engineering efforts, or which depresses enterprise agility somehow. When we recognize it, we usually want to revise or replace some technological artifacts — or create what's missing — for sound engineering reasons. Technical debts can be found associated with enterprise assets of all kinds.

The causes of growth in technical debt are numerous, including — among many others — insufficient resources, schedule pressure, existing technical debt, changes in strategic direction, changes in law or regulations, and the risks associated with creating first-of-kind solutions to difficult problems. In most engineering activity, new technical debt is inevitable.

When technologists — engineers, their managers, or others in technical roles — try to alert the rest of the organization to the problems associated with accumulating technical debt, they often meet resistance from nontechnologists. Technologists usually respond to this resistance by explaining technical debt and its consequences, and sometimes they do receive the resources, time, and cooperation they need to start retiring the accumulated technical debt, and to avoid adding more debt to the burden the enterprise already carries.

But explaining rarely works, for reasons beyond mere misunderstanding the issue. One fundamental problem is the term technical debt. Nontechnologists must be forgiven for believing that since technical debt is inherently technical, it follows that its causes are also technical; that technologists are solely responsible for creating technical debt, and nontechnologists play no role. That is, of course, false.

A second Language, stereotypes, and
assumptions can conspire
to confuse us about the
causes of problems
cause of misconceptions about the causes of technical debt lies in the assumptions we make about what diligent work looks like. Many nontechnologists have roles in General Management, Sales, Marketing, or Business Development. They're working hard when they're in contact with each other or with people external to the enterprise. They're traveling, conversing by telephone, or hosting meetings. By contrast, technologists are working hard when they're at their (real or virtual) desks, or attending (real or virtual) meetings on premises. They do attend meetings off premises, but they do so at much lower rates than do nontechnologists.

When nontechnologists assess the technologists' work ethic, they tend to use the same standards and assumptions they apply to themselves. They under-estimate the technologists' activity level because outwardly, technologists appear more often to be what nontechnologists would regard as "idle" — sitting at their desks. [Schein 2004]

And so language, stereotypes, and assumptions conspire to lead some to believe that technologists are solely responsible for technical debt. Proceeding from that conclusion, finding a resolution of the problem will be difficult indeed. Language, stereotypes, and assumptions can be traps. Go to top Top  Next issue: Polychronic Meetings  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Brenner 2005]
Richard Brenner. "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout blog, December 21, 2005. Available here. Back
[Schein 2004]
Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, p. 33. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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