Just say “No” to Gorilla Debt in your Teams

By ccPixs.com

Debt Free by ccPixs.xom

You’d think with the amount of time I spend hitting my head on my desk it would have a permanent dent by now.

My most recent forehead abuse was brought short by the one thing I hated more than coaching a team that thought they we’re already perfect. The deep, rumbling bass of my personal gorilla cut through the sound of my head hitting the desk. “The SPFA called, they are filing a restraining order against you for furniture abuse.”

I blinked and looked up at the hulking form of my conscience in physical form. Why couldn’t I have a little cricket like Pinocchio? It would be so much easier to lock him in a jar and toss him in the ocean. “The SPFA?”

Hogarth  nodded, “Yep, the Society for the Prevention of Furniture Abuse. Their motto is ‘Desks Have Feelings Too’.”

“Go away Hogarth, I’m busy.”

Hogarth broke a branch off the nearest office plant and plopped into a chair next to my desk. “Pretty sure, destroy desk with forehead isn’t the most important thing on your backlog. What’s up?”

I sighed, he wasn’t going to go away so I might as well get this all over with. “The team didn’t take into account planned vacations and the product owner used their expected velocity to promise a feature to sales. Half the team was out and the other half was almost totally consumed by blocker bugs.”

Hogarth asked, “Didn’t they have this issue the last three months ago?” 

I nodded.

“And I seem to recall it was raised after the first sprint, over six months ago. Right?”

I nodded again.

“Well,” Hogarth said. “Sounds just like that problem you had with the original login server not being able to scale beyond 1000 simultaneous logins.”

“Don’t be silly, Hogarth”  I snapped. “You know very well we already fixed that issue two sprints ago.”

Hogarth was smiling, I hate it when he smiles like that, it usually means I’m about to be setup. “That’s right, we did didn’t we? How is it we took care of that?”

I didn’t know where he was taking this and I couldn’t just leave it alone, “We identified it as Technical Debt. We put it into the product backlog and worked with the product owner to prioritize it alongside new feature work.”

Hogarth nodded, “So we had  a problem with the product architecture, we recognized it and put it into a backlog with everything else to be prioritized?”

“Yes!” This was starting to get annoying since he was just reviewing what we all knew. Where was he going with this?

“So where is the backlog for the problems with the team? ” Hogarth asked.

Backlog for the team’s problems, like we do for Technical Debt?  Team Debt?

And he’d done it again…

 

Team Debt is just as destructive as Technical Debt

If you have any doubt that we are worried about the effects of Technical Debt, just Google the term. I get just over one million hits when I do. With the concept of agile development now considered in the mainstream, for software development if not all product development, the recognition that we can’t build our way out of technical problems with new features is taking firm hold. While how we approach it may still be an area of wide debate (TDD, BDD, dedicated legacy teams, rip and replace architecture, etc.) we are coming to a fundamental agreement that we need to slow down and deal with the problems we’ve created before we can speed up and build the next wave.

What about our teams though? It can be very easy to forget that agile is not just a new product lifecycle process (PLC). We have been so ingrained that PLC process is about what we are building that we often forget that agile is as much about “who” is building something as “what” we are building.

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done” –Principle 5  of the Agile Manifesto

Team Debt is the term I use to describe the impediments, issues and blockers that prevent the team from improving. Where testing and product usage will generally uncover your products Technical Debt, it is the Team Retrospectives, manager one-on-ones and coaching observations that will uncover the Team Debt. On the whole, something we are getting pretty good at doing in most agile organizations. Thanks to Scrum, we have built in the concept of the retrospective at the end of every sprint which gives us the mechanism to uncover our impediments.

Of course knowing the problem is only half the battle. We see this with Technical Debt all the time. Sure we know that our infrastructure can’t handle over a 1000 simultaneous logins, or that our core server has legacy code no one even remembers who wrote. We’ve known this for years and we’ve never done anything about it because we were too busy build the next new, wizbang, feature instead.

So just as we need to put Technical Debt into our product backlog and actually prioritize it to be fixed, we need to discover, track and address Team Debt.

The Impediment Backlog

Here, at AOL (Yes, AOL, they  are still around and doing cool stuff in 2016),  I’ve been experimenting with the concept of creating an Impediment Backlog. Just as the product has a backlog of everything we want to do with it, we need a backlog to track the issues impacting the teams. I’ve started coaching my teams to create an impediment backlog and include items from it into their Sprint Planning right alongside items from the Product Backlog. I’m also advocating for the creation of an Organization Impediment Backlog where we track cross and multi-team issues that cannot be solved at the team level.

By making the issues visible and putting them into the same formats as our Product Backlog, we can more easily understand and fit them into our day to day processes. If it looks like a duck, and we’re in the business of making ducks, then it will fit right in. If it looks like a fork and we’re in the business of making ducks then we’re likely to ignore it.

Ask me in a few months how we’re doing, it’s an experiment in the making.

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