Monday, February 4, 2013

Plan to Win

The phrase technical debt has gained a lot of traction in the past few years. It has reached the point that executives and others with little development knowledge use it regularly. Using it and being willing to pay to remove it are two different things. I am at least glad that it is on the table for discussion. Technical debt alone only takes into account the view of the organizations technical product capabilities. This is valuable but it does not stand alone. The surrounding and supporting organization creates the arena for development and contributes significantly how technical debt is created and managed.

Businesses want to make money. Technical debt creeps into a product at the early stages and my not have any immediate customer or cost impact. As the solution grows in adoption, technical debt will be exposed and customer and cost impacts will show up. Paying for deferred technical debt is like a bad loan. The compounded deferred debt cost grow in a non linear fashion. The longer you wait, the more it costs. When you plan to win, organizations factor in the cost of technical debt and tie it to the strategy. The brother or sister to technical debt is organizational debt. Organization debt, like technical debt, impeded the businesses ability to react and adapt. Also like tech debt, the longer it is ignored, the more costly it is to remove.

Organizational Debt - Any capability needed to make the organization successful that operates at less than its optimal level. Below are some areas capabilities that an organization needs to be successful along with an example or two of technical debt.

  • Leadership Strength (EBIT only focused. Lack of bench strength)
  • Market Strategy and Planning (Failure to adjust to market changes)
  • Decision Making (Highly political environment. Having meetings are better than decisions)
  • Technical Talent Development (Reward the heros. Failure to move out low performing people)
  • Execution on Plan (Lack of accountability. Mediocrity is tolerated)
  • Ability to Course Correct (Mistakes are ignored and will likely happen again)
  • Functional Areas (Dev, QC, Prodm, ...) that believe they are great and operate separate from the other functions.

Ability to Adapt

For organizations to grow and remain effective, they must groom and manage both technical debt and organizational debt.

The graph above shows the impact of organizational debt on the ability for organizations to make changes in their capabilities. Like technical debt, putting off addressing organizational debt costs more over time and the cost curve is not linear.

So when planning to win, be sure to factor in your organizational debt and adjustments. Start with the multiplier areas and make your first adjustments there. These will be the areas the direct future changes. 


One key area is leadership. Make sure you have the right leadership team in place. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Five Dysfunctions of Team book provides a decent foundation to get the current leadership working together. This is needed to find out of the current team can meet the organizational needs. Create a clear plan and let the team execute. Practicing for controlled experiments with failure as a possibility allows for coaching and mentoring. For those leaders that do not jump in and grow, it may be time to make some changes. I believe a leadership team needs to serve one another. Leaders should be good at what they own and look to help make those around them successful. Organizations that move to agile and Scrum will flush out the selfish and hoarding leaders. The team should be more concerned about the results. Leaderships main goal is to create an environment for success and remove the barriers that are in the way.

Talent Management

Hiring and keeping the right people creates a difference maker for an organization. Bring on people that match both the current and future needs for your organization. If you are a maintenance organization and plan to stay there, then do not look for cutting edge technologists. 

Look for and reward people that are smart, capable, servants, and team players. This will provide a level of resilience in your organization. Like in leadership, we want to avoid the heros and find people that are good at what they do and willingly help make others around them be successful.

Sometimes leaders avoid providing honest feedback to team members. They may be afraid they will leave or we cannot do without this person. Both may  be true and are leadership flags that your organization is too fragile. Avoiding holding people accountable not only hurts the individual it hurts the team around them. It creates an expectation of mediocrity.

Some level of turnover in talent helps keep an organization healthy. As a leader, I view my job is to provide the best place for people to work, treat them well, hold them accountable and grow their career. People will leave and when it is done well, most will leave on good terms. By focusing on growing people, you will in turn improve your ability on bringing new people into the organization. You will move from a scarcity view on talent to an abundance view on talent.

Organizational Operations

Plan it, measure it and improve it. No matter where you are at in the organizational building process, begin planning, begin measuring and begin improving on it. This act alone will bring awareness to people that what they do matters and it will be examined. Agile provides a great framework for all levels of the organization to be involved. Agile very nature is to plan, measure and improve. For organizations with strong leadership and good talent, agile operations provides working data for growth and change in small iterative and manageable segments. 

The operations piece, when done well, provides a good hook into what kind of leaders and people you have in your organization. It will help expose the hoarders and the low performers and elevate the strong leaders and performers. In the end, we get paid when we delight our customers to the point they are willing to pay.

This is where your leadership strength comes into play. You will need the right kind of leaders to grow and move the organization. This can be messy at times. Improving at times means breaking down and building back.

Background Posts

For those jumping into the blog, you may want to read the following earlier posts.

  • Define and Own the Problem
  • Follow the Solution to Your Customer(s)
  • Practice Continuous Improvement
  • Provide Professional Growth
  • Practice Teamwork
  • Provide Accountability

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