Change Debt - No Second Chances
In the past few years ‘Technical debt’ has become a fairly hot topic. Using the description from Wikipedia, ‘Technical debt’ is a metaphor referring to the eventual consequences of poor system design, architecture or development within a codebase. The debt can be thought of as work that needs to be done before a particular job can be considered complete or proper. If the debt is not repaid, it will keep on accumulating interest, making it hard to implement changes later on. Unaddressed technical debt increases software entropy.'
When I was cutting code, way back in the mid 1980’s we had the problem, there just wasn’t really a name for it. And back then, we had a different way of dealing with it. I was writing programme during one of the most volatile periods of platform change – from mainframe to PC, from MS-DOS to Windows, and from stand-alone to client-server architectures. And each time the platform changed, we did a fairly significant amount of re-architecting, re-design, refactoring and rewrites.The modern day business drivers of time to market and reduced cycle times were less important then, especially in the niche markets that I was working in. Speed of execution, features and reliability were our main drivers. In the last job where I did still write code I was tasked with improving quality and maintainability and our efforts went a long way to protecting us from technical debt.
I haven’t written commercial code for nearly 20 years now. But having been involved in dozens of organisational change programmes, I believe they share a similar problem to ‘Technical Debt’. For want of a better expression, I’ll refer to it as ‘Change Debt’ – which we can define as the cost of failing to adequately plan a change or making hasty or ill-considered decisions when implementing change within and across an organisation.
The key difference between Technical Debt and Change Debt is that Technical Debt creeps up on you over time and ultimately engulfs you if you do nothing about it, wheras Change Debt is more like owing money to a loan shark and will probably cause you considerable harm almost immediately.
The real problem with Change Debt is that it is often irreversible. Once you've made the critical (bad) decision (or not made it) you are largely stuck with the consequences - and not only for the lifetime of your current initiative, but potentially for future initiatives.
So, when you are planning your next change programme, take a few extra moments to think carefully about what you are doing, what and whom you are going to impact, and consider the consequences of your decisions and actions from different perspectives.
You may not get a second chance!