Poor decisions, bad metrics, lack of communication can accrue dark debt in any company
Buying a low-quality microwave meal from a gas station, kicking a sock under the bed before guests arrive, jaywalking … We all take shortcuts. But unlike enterprise software delivery, these decisions rarely cause any collateral damage. The ramifications of taking shortcuts in IT, however, are much more serious.
These decisions—i.e. “technical debt,” the “rework” debt owed after opting for a convenient solution instead of a better approach that takes longer—has implications on your company’s ability to grow and adapt to change. Fortunately, since the 1990s, when the term was coined by Ward Cunningham, we’ve learned how to identify and manage most forms of technical debt, understanding how to limit its impact and manage the interest.
Your organizational culture can accrue debt, too. For example, a company that finds it easier to hire a homogeneous team up front might discover the costly cultural trade-off of hiring diversity later. When it comes to this “cultural debt,” we are much less disciplined. We often make decisions in the dark, without understanding how they are going to play out over the long term. “Dark debt” builds up over time and creates a toxic work environment in which people are not set up for success.
Common issues indicating dark debt include:
- Failures lead to finger-pointing.
- Metrics incentivize undesirable behavior.
- Lack of candor.
Ways to Combat Dark Debt
Call Out Psychological Safety Indicators
Failures are inevitable, whether we are discussing power outages, data breaches or false missile alerts. A “safe to fail” mentality promotes learning and support adaptability. If employees don’t feel safe telling the boss bad news, the latter might be the last person to know what’s going on—not a good situation for a company working to disrupt an industry, or one expecting to stay listed on the Dow Jones.
A Net Promoter Score-like survey can help identify areas where employees experience dissatisfaction. Here are some sample statements for your NPS survey that are based on Westrum’s organizational culture model as introduced in the “2014 State of DevOps Report.”
- On my team, failure causes inquiry and not blame.
- Our leadership is open to hearing bad news.
- In my organization, failures are learning opportunities and messengers are not punished.
- People on our team trust one another.
The survey results will shine a light on the forces shaping your culture. Instead of finger-pointing, you can learn to address issues earlier and ask questions such as, “Why did it make sense for someone to do that at that time?”
Tell me how you’ll measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave. Gaming metrics are fairly easy to do, especially when an employee is incentivized to hit an unrealistic target or avoid embarrassment. Take activity metrics, for example (lines of code, number of bugs): These metrics focus on keeping people busy. But busyness does not equal business value delivered. People can be 100 percent utilized sprinting from meeting to meeting while making scant progress on business goals.
Instead, consider metrics that reveal progress toward important business objectives or ones that help you make better business decisions. Flow metrics such as flow load, flow time, flow efficiency, and flow velocity reveal trends that measure four key areas: workload, speed, waste and throughput (respectively). These metrics are helpful in numerous ways, such as:
- When others imply that things take too long, teams work inefficiently or people aren’t fully utilized, it’s useful to test their opinion against the data.
- Having a balanced set of metrics allows you to see how changes in one area impact other areas. If the amount of work-in-progress (flow load) goes up, things will take longer to do (because of context switching and conflicting priorities), which results in slower speeds (longer flow times).
Think about the behaviors that occur in your organization by how metrics incentivize people. What we measure impacts people because people value what is measured. Think twice before automatically defaulting to free and easy metrics available in your existing toolset.
Build Social Capital
Ideas start out flawed and incomplete. High levels of social capital, debate and discussion are the means by which ideas flourish. Social capital is what enables people to collaborate more effectively. The absence of social capital makes it impossible for people to speak openly (due to the lack of trust), resulting in withheld feedback and invisible work.
Not much happens without discussion. When we engage in debate, our capacity to see each other’s perspectives is realized. TED talk speaker Margaret Heffernan’s insight on social capital is compelling: “Time compounds social capital.” The longer teams work together, the more trust, helpfulness and candor they accrue. Longstanding teams, therefore, benefit from increased productivity and reduced risk.
Unlike the costly and time-consuming transitions observed in project-managed work, where people disband after dumping their work on the operations team before starting another project, organizing teams around a product allows the people who developed, tested and delivered the functionality to not only stay in their area of expertise, but also grow and gain from social capital.