Technical Debt: What Is It & How Do I Avoid It?

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Planning for a project is essentially choosing one path forward to achieve your goals and objectives. There are many ways to proceed, but through research, experience and good judgement, the best route is picked when creating a project plan.

But things don’t always work out as planned. Sometimes you have to deviate from your initial plan and take a shortcut. This is often due to the various forces at play that impact decision-making, like those related to the project budget, schedule or resources. But shortcuts, which might seem advisable at the time, are always taken with costs that can derail a project later in its life cycle.

There’s a term to explain this idea: technical debt. And like any form of debt, it must not be taken on lightly. If you’re about to embark on a new project, take a moment to read about what technical debt is and why you’ll want to avoid it at all costs.

technical debt in project management

What Is Technical Debt?

The concept of technical debt comes from software development where it refers to the costs of having to go back and resolve problems that arise because of an earlier decision to take the easy route, instead of the best one. In a sense, that choice for an easy solution is incurring a debt to the project that will have to be paid later.

Just like a monetary debt, if a technical debt is not paid back, then it can accumulate interest. That makes it harder to implement those necessary changes later. In software development, adding technical debt increases software entropy, which is akin to the second law of thermodynamics: a closed system’s disorder cannot be reduced, it can only remain unchanged or increased.

That doesn’t mean that technical debt is all bad. It is often needed in order to move forward with a project. But mostly, technical debt (especially when it’s unpaid and incurs interest on top of interest) is a danger that all project managers must identify, be cognizant of, and avoid if possible.

Related: The Risk Management Process in Project Management

Types of Technical Debt

There are primarily three types of technical debt:

  1. Naïve: This is when a specific best practice is not followed. The reason for this negligence could be due to not being aware of the best design pattern, naming convention, documentation or coding guidelines. This is most likely to occur with junior level team members, but even the most experienced can miss something they shouldn’t.
  2. Unavoidable: This is when an upgrade in tools brings a better way to do things, which requires an update to old processes. Another instance of unavoidable technical debt is when scope changes are requested in the middle of a project, which add to the project’s cost. Of course, there can also be requests to add new features.
  3. Strategic: This is when the technical debt is taken on, whether intentionally or not. That might happen by not complying to best practices. It is usually taken on by first determining the financial cost of the technical debt and getting buy-in from leadership.

When Technical Debt is a Choice

Technical debt can also be reckless versus prudent, and deliberate versus inadvertent.

  • Reckless and deliberate could be not having the time for optimal design.
  • Prudent and deliberate is when a product must ship, and the consequences will be dealt with later.
  • Reckless and inadvertent would be a team ignorant of design practices.
  • Prudent and inadvertent is less likely but still possible, such as when something works but could have been done better and will be done so in the future.

Causes of Technical Debt

There are many ways that a project can accrue technical debt, but some causes are more likely to occur over the course of a project. They are listed below:

  • Lack of Planning: This can be not sufficiently defining things up front. That is, if you start development before completing the project design in order to save time, you’re likely going to have to go back and rework things later.
  • External Forces: This can include business pressure. Often the marketplace or business executives will demand the release of something sooner than later, even if all the necessary changes aren’t yet completed. This is fairly common in the field of product management.
  • Ignorance: If a project manager and the project team are ignorant of technical debt, then they’re almost fated to experience it. If the project follows a process that doesn’t include the implications of technical debt, it is moving forward without the knowledge of an inherent risk to the project.
  • Lack of Flexibility: Not being flexible and able to pivot when change requires it, will also lead to technical debt. It’s important to be flexible as a manager. 
  • Inadequate Documentation: Not having the proper documentation done at the time is a technical debt that will have to be paid later.
  • Lack of Collaboration: Not sharing knowledge among the project group impacts efficiency, which in turn will create technical debt. Using online collaboration tools can help improve the exchange of key information.
  • Parallel Projects: Running parallel development makes for technical debt as the work needed to merge the changes into a single source creates extra work.
  • Requirements Change: If the requirements of a project change that will create technical debt as well.
  • Neglecting Industry Standards: Not following industry standards that will then have to be dealt with later is another example of technical debt.
  • Poor Leadership: Anything from a lack of ownership to poor leadership and last-minute changes are all potential causes of technical debt.

How to Prevent Technical Debt

As noted, technical debt is not always a bad thing. You can get your product to market faster than the competition. Then as you get feedback, bugs can be squashed, and the product develops while it is generating revenue for the organization.

That is the ideal situation, and the money made can be used to pay for the technical debt accrued. But technical debt can be unexpected due to unrealistic time or resource constraints. There are ways for a project manager to avoid technical debt, six of which are outlined below.

1. Talk About Technical Debt

That’s key. If people are aware of technical debt, then they’ll be more likely to identify paths that will result in it. Everyone in the project group, especially team members, must be positioned to offer insight into technical debt, which the project manager can then choose to act or not act on. Bring it up in planning meetings, and keep the focus on it. Pose questions such as, “If a shortcut is the right choice, what is there to gain, and what are the challenges and future implications?”

2. Advocate for Organizational Maintenance

By taking time to advocate for organizational maintenance, you’re addressing issues and maintaining processes. Make this the standard by which you run the project. Therefore, make sure there is time in the schedule to deal with technical debt sooner than later, so you can advance in the project while reducing vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Total quality management can help with regular organizational maintenance.

3. Use KPIs to Track Project Expectations

By having KPIs on your project performance or development, you can help better prioritize work that will address technical debt. For more help on this, read about 8 essential KPI metrics for teams.

4. Have Your Team Track Technical Debt as They Do Their Tasks

Instead of having various status updates, combine them all under one roof. Now technical debt can be tracked and prioritized with other tasks, which keeps them in the forefront and not lost between the cracks.

5. Empower Teams to Plan Around Technical Debt

Use technical debt to engage your team: make it part of a collaborative planning effort and get feedback from your team.

6. Don’t Ask Teams to Do Too Much Too Soon

This is a surefire way to accrue technical debt. Consult with your team about realistic deadlines and goals that they can meet without having to cut corners and possibly create technical debt.

If you’re aware of technical debt, you can avoid it. But only if you have the right tools to help your team collaborate, track and report on it. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that offers a collaborative platform for project managers and team members to freely communicate at the task level. See how it can help you identify and eradicate technical debt in your projects by taking this free 30-day trial today.

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