Building software with technical debt is painful. Every change is becoming slower due to the accumulated waste and complexity – until the organization becomes unable to evolve the software.
When hitting a wall, organizations destroy the house they have been paying for the last years. They usually start another software effort from zero, transforming the initial investment into an entire waste of money.
Technical debt is a widely known concept in engineering. It represents the iceberg of issues organizations accumulate over time from their implementation decisions. We explored the particular case of test automation debt in this article.
Achieving Quality Engineering revolves around the 5 pillars of MAMOS: Methods, Architecture, Management, Organization and Skills. Debt is everywhere, and OrgDebt is a fundamental entropy to contain within Management, Organization and Skills.
In this article, we cover first OrgDebt to then identify how to detect and to prevent it leveraging Quality Engineering:
- Organizational Debt is more than the sum of shortcuts
- Lack of shared mission and purpose dispersing the effort
- Lack of alignment with the overall system is waste
- Lack of valuable interactions will make you miss the point
- Lack of necessary capabilities and skills will slow you down
- Lack of value creation will make the organization hit a wall
Let’s start by defining OrgDebt in the context of Quality Engineering, aiming for continuous delivery of value to its users.
Organizational Debt is more than the sum of shortcuts
Organizational Debt is a term coined by Steve Blank. In his article, he defines it as the “Organizational debt is all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup”.
Bülent Duagi shares a slightly different perspective in his article: “The accumulation of organizational micro-drifts as defined by the difference between what’s needed and the status quo”. It adds an element of missing value.
In Quality Engineering, debt is the gap between the expected and actual value. In that context, the OrgDebt is therefore not limited to compromises but covers :
- The delayed impacts of past shortcuts taken
- The delayed impacts of non-taken decisions or corrective actions
- The current impacts of the expected versus the actual value generated
At the end of the day, your organizational debt results from all the decisions and actions that should have been done to achieve the continuous delivery of value, meeting the various requirements of quality, speed, and evolutivity.
These 3 typologies of impacts are found in the Quality Engineering Framework of MAMOS within Management, Organization and Skills – the 3 areas where the organizational structure is structurally present.
This lack of getting the “right decisions right” starts with the overall alignment of the actors.
Lack of shared mission and purpose disperse the effort
80% of people do not feel a purpose at their job. The animation of the actors on a shared mission and purpose is the responsibility of Management. It starts from the CEO, setting the agenda for meeting the high-standard expected by the users and constrained by the accelerated ecosystem.
The added value is the exponential results an organization can achieve from joint efforts. Think about lasting monuments, pyramids, or global actors of our daily life. A management that fails to align a common mission and purpose will not build pyramids today or tomorrow.
It may result in building very few, small and short-lived pyramids in some cases. This is the impact of misalignment between actors acting separately on their self-interests. You can even hear these symptoms through the word “political organizations”. Political organizations that are slow, acting back and forth, will never reach the continuous delivery of value to its users.
Quality Engineering constrains the system to align the system-wide value to deliver to the users. The key principles are to start with why, understanding and making the stakeholders state their expectations of value. The actors can only act towards building the same pyramid from a collaboratively defined value. There is no shortcut there. In fact, the overall system needs the Tipping Point, an important moment in change management we explored in this article.
Failing to align the overall system is the next OrgDebt.
Lack of alignment with the overall system is waste
The large number of transformation efforts that fail to deliver value has one thing in common: they fail to articulate the necessary changes to capture value from a set of identified improvements.
The typical example is the implementation of a brand new CRM without any business processes evolution. That results in a project outsourced to the sole IT function that, even if it does its best, fails to provide value to the users missing the alignment with the product and the business.
This reasoning is valid for any element of the Quality Engineering Framework: the right Method to build the wrong Architecture, the Right Organization supported by the Wrong Management. The visible impacts are the actors structurally failing at delivering the gap of value. The statistics required proper actions; a third of the actors (33%) do not get their organization’s mission.
The Quality Engineering system you build aims to continuously deliver value leveraging the right capabilities of each domain, composing the expertises, iterating through fast feedback loops. That means actors’ interactions are essential.
Valuable interactions are the cornerstone of an efficient organization.
Lack of valuable interactions make you miss the point
Have you lived through one “organization restructuration” without any impact? The organizational design focuses solely on the structure and fails to address the critical dynamic of systems: interactions.
Interactions are at the center of our Quality Engineering framework, enabled by its actors. The structure drives interactions, interactions drive priorities, and priorities drive impacts. Missing the interactions is like missing what we are aiming at.
DevOps is an excellent example of applying Quality Engineering to interactions between development and operations. Succeeding at continuous delivery of value to our users requires the same patterns at various layers. We have to compose the actors’ expertise based on the local challenge to solve, contributing to the system-wide impacts.
Valuable interactions have a similar difficulty like Quality Assurance – they mostly prevent than fix issues – explaining the difficulty of having them right. This is where the alignment of QE using the MAMOS framework is effective.
Systematic approaches enable obtaining key insights, such as identifying the necessary skills for these valuable interactions.
Lack of necessary capabilities and skills slow you down
Stress is the feeling of lacking the required resources to perform particular activities. At a company level, missing the organizational capabilities and actors’ skills creates stress at the system level, directly impacting its performance.
Actors who are not feeling right will have behaviors failing to deliver value: they will lack collaboration, transparency, and openness to change. Their defensive behavior is contrary to what we are looking for in Quality Engineering: valuable collaboration through the composition of expertises.
SkillsDebt is therefore a subset of OrgDebt directly impacting the continuous delivery of value. Each task is more slow, error-prone and failing at missing the high-standard required by our users. Organizations are wasting their time and money when lacking the necessary skills. Companies need to maximize the use of their abilities. According to the ManPower group, 69% of employers globally are struggling to find skilled workers.
Skills are one of the five pillars of MAMOS, the Quality Engineering Framework. Actors are the center of the system we are building; they need adapted skills at the right level of expertise to collaborate effectively with peers. Composing expertise is one major challenge of management; there is no time for training on a live concert.
Organizations that fail to deliver the expected value will end by confronting the reality, usually through the concept of a wall.
Lack of value creation will make the organization hit a wall
Hitting a wall is facing a cold reality that is now blocking your own progress. That’s not only a limiting or slowing factor like it was seen before, where “tomorrow will be a better day”. Hitting a wall is like an accident, it hurts.
Companies that finally hit a wall are paying for their overall debt accumulation, particularly their technical and organizational ones. It is the responsibility of management to prevent and contain the entropy to avoid reaching these situations.
Implementing Quality Engineering is about animating the actors towards the shared mission and purpose first. Then we can continuously align its elements, composing the right expertise to regularly assess the delivery of value. To that effect, treating the waste is a habit to develop, like brushing your teeth.
OrgDebt is the most significant weight that can slow down an organization towards complete inertia. Except if leaders act preventively and continuously to make the difference.
Duena Blomstrom (2021), How to Recognize and Reduce HumanDebt, InfoQ
Anne Abell, Carsten Ruseng Jakobsen (2021), ‘Debt’ as a Guide on the Agile Journey: Organizational Debt. InfoQ
Bülent Duagi (2019), It’s time to start tackling organizational debt. LinkedIn
Steve Blank (2015), Organizational Debt Is Like Technical Debt – But Worse. Forbes & SteveBlank.com
Jonathan Trevor, Barry Varcoe (2017), How Aligned Is Your Organization? Harvard Business Review
Minsilo, Complete Guide to Organizational Alignment