Complacency – An underappreciated form and a root cause of technical debt

John Peterson, one of the members of the Agile Lean Leadership network, appears as a guest blogger this week

Beware of the cliff you do not see, that you should have seen!

If you are not familiar with the Cynefin Framework, please take a moment to watch this quick 12-minute Getting Started with Cynefin video:

Below is a slightly embellished pictorial representation of the Cynefin Framework:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the framework is how it depicts complacency. It is so wonderfully simple. One moment, smooth sailing. And just like that, rough seas, we’re either in the North Atlantic or Lake Michigan, but cannot tell!

Did we see it coming? Could we have seen it coming?

As Dave Snowden indicates in the video, the line that crosses the boundary between Obvious and Chaos is a cliff.

Did we see it in our path? Could we have seen it before it was too late?

Of course, all of this is rather metaphorical. There is no real cliff. But in the world of business analogies, “Going over the cliff” is among many accepted cliff-related analogies. Assuming for argument’s sake the analogy works, then what of it? What does it mean tangibly in a business sense? What can we do about it? If we find ourselves with that feeling that what we thought was obvious, is in fact chaotic from our point of view, what then? It’s an important question to ask because we are, in a very real sense, heading toward that metaphorical cliff. And it can indeed appear that this incident “Just happened!”

Almost without exception, through inspection, the seeds were sown for this latest emergency, sometime before, often weeks, months, or years before.

As a practical example, consider web certificates. They eventually expire. Unless there is some process by which people, through some tooling that cooperatively and collectively define a system, can proactively avoid The Cliff, then whether the cliff is avoided or not rests with luck and luck alone.

That’s why the e-commerce site went down, an expired cert?
How did that happen? …………… We don’t know.

Right there, at that moment, whenever a necessary question can’t be answered, that’s precisely the time to not be complacent! Even if there is some mechanism to preserve the environment so that events can be later analyzed. The key is, there must be a commitment to action and the discipline to see to it the action is taken. And to do that, there must be enablement, from within each person on the team because it is usually the case that each person on the team, is the most important link. If there are breaks in the linkage or leaks in the system, they must be remediated, if not now, then as soon as possible. But above all, we must at least prepare the ground today for the necessary remediations that will eventually need to be implemented!

How else does Technical Debt accrue?

There may be no better real-world non-business analogy than maintaining any sort of landscaping. It takes work. There are different seasons, adverse weather, grass needs cutting, plants and shrubs need trimming, and everything needs to be fed and watered. In many ways, our business systems are no different. Get complacent, the garden begins to overgrow, perhaps to the point of going over the cliff where the vines are so chaotic, everything must be ripped out, only to begin anew.

That’s the insidious nature of technical debt and it is no more complicated than that. Some technical debt always exists. Not all necessary work can commence and be accomplished immediately. Therefore, as to technical debut, it’s a matter of management. And the best way to manage how technical debt is accrued is to be proactive and review our systems for hygiene, much like what must be done to maintain a garden, household, or anything else.

The best way to get started is to just start with something achievable that if achieved, will have a positive impact. It really is that simple and fits together quite nicely. Through technical debt remediation, we add to the Value Stream. The Cynefin Framework, by and through Agile Lean Leadership is a sound approach to beginning your path. Once you’ve taken the first step, the second step will be much easier. And in so doing, you’ll have a happier and more harmonious organization by knowing where the “Complacency cliffs” are and steering clear of them!

“It ain’t the things you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s the things you know for sure, that just ain’t so!” –Mark Twain.

By John V. Petersen









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