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 non-technologists. 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. Non-technologists 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 non-technologists play no role. That is, of course, false.
A second Language, stereotypes, and
assumptions can conspire
to confuse us about the
causes of problemscause of misconceptions about the causes of technical debt lies in the assumptions we make about what diligent work looks like. Many non-technologists 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 non-technologists.
When non-technologists 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 non-technologists 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. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Conflict Management:
- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing
comity by slowing down.
- Indicators of Lock-In: II
- When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even
when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.