I recently published a blog on the Perficient Digital Transformation blog entitled “Is Cloud & DevOps Factored Into Your Digital Transformation?” In that blog I discuss the concept of organizational debt and its impact on your DevOps adoption. Here’s what I had to say in that blog:
If technical debt addresses too little investment in upgrading, poor vendor selection, bad platform selection, etc. then, many businesses have also built up organizational debt. Organizational debt could be over regulation, too many low-value policies, to much middle management attempting to hold onto their area of control, and too much governance. If these are not revisited often to ensure that they are continually adding value for the cost of reducing throughput, then that organizational debt will continue to increase backlog.
Interestingly, there’s a lot written about technical debt, but very little has been written about organizational debt, which can have a significantly deeper impact on your ability to continuously deliver than your technical debt.
In working with clients on their DevOps initiatives, we map the current value stream for a given solution area. What becomes apparent from these value stream maps is that controls and policies have been derived within organizational silos with no attention given to how that will impact IT’s overall ability to be agile and deliver more quickly for the business. Moreover, the owners of these controls and policies seem reticent to remove these bottlenecks even after being shown how it impacts business agility.
Here’s an anecdote from one client when asked why they aren’t using snapshots to speed preparation for QA testing. The suggestion was made in response to the client stating it can take upwards of a week to prepare the QA environment for a single round of testing. Their current approach serializes all testing and believes they need to perform a complete regression test due to the resource contention issues. Hence, they cannot test small changes easily and they cannot test often due to these limitations.
“The main issue is that we don’t control the application or database environment, so we need to prepare a QA release and then have those groups perform their duties in preparation of the QA environment for testing.”
Upon hearing this my mind summoned up past experiences working conferences at major venues, such as the Jacob Javitz Center in NY, where you can’t plug in an extension cord or run an Ethernet cable yourself, but you need to use the Javitz Center’s electrician because of union rules.
Is this what IT has become a set of unofficial unions that hold the business in a death grip? This is clearly a case of organizational debt that needs to be addressed.
Of note, I’m not admonishing the various groups for instituting their controls and policies. I’m sure they have emerged due out of need due to past grievances, failures or as part of IT management practices. Regardless, they are now acting as a bottleneck in implementing proven practices for delivering fewer features more often, which have been proven to increase trust and facilitate better prioritization of work.
The result of this organizational debt is lead times have grown to four months or longer to release functionality that is directly related to key business initiatives by the business for increasing revenue.
In his book, “Kanban,” author David Anderson discusses his recipe for addressing bottlenecks and constraints with existing teams. One of his steps is ‘attack sources of variability to improve predictability’. However, this is his last step because, as he notes, “some types of variability require behavioral changes in order to reduce them. Asking people to change behavior is difficult!” And, so it goes, many businesses never address this key constraint because the hurdles of organizational debt have become so burdensome to overcome. It requires a high degree of trust and political capital along with executive sponsorship. As shown by the anecdote earlier, even if the constraint is directly impeding other business priorities it is not easy to overcome.
I believe DevOps practices can help organizations significantly reduce their technical debt. I have seen and read about organizations that have been able to rapidly reduce their lead times while still refactoring and removing backlog. However, the goal of DevOps is to improve the entire flow, not just development, and a good majority of the release aspects of applications will require organizational debt to be addressed to enable improvement across the entire continuous delivery pipeline.