Addressing Your Organization’s Developmental Debt

An Integral Agile Approach

We tend to take care of debts be they financial, technical or even loyalty debts. But there’s another kind of debt that has emerged in the past few years: developmental debt. Developmental debt is described as the debt of human development as opposed to technological advancement in organizations in the world. As an agile community member I believe we have missed a golden opportunity in addressing this quickly accumulating debt in organizations.

Integral Theory

I’m an integral enthusiast. Why? Simply because I believe an integral approach helps open the door to completely new perspectives that contribute to development. If at this point you’re asking yourself “What development is he talking about?” well coincidentally your question might be proving my point. The answer is: all of the them.

The basic principle of integral theory, to my understanding, is to consider as many perspectives as possible when it comes to developing practically anything. This means considering the external components, i.e. the tangibles, products, environment, actions, structures, tools and processes to name but a few, as well as the internal components which include emotions, values, cultures, purpose and intentions.

What is the value of this approach? It ensures that you consider as many perspectives as possible when innovating, solving problems, creating something from scratch, conceptualizing, bringing to action as well as saving a lives. Integral approaches are being applied everywhere (see Integrative Medicine) and IT is no exception.

Integral Agility

I believe we should be very grateful to have been given such a gift as the Agile Manifesto for Software Development. I think there is really more to the manifesto than meets the eye, or even the mind for that matter. I also believe the agile community is struggling with the definition of what it is to be ‘agile’, what the word should mean or even which message it should convey. Some people are convinced that it is a state to achieve as in: “To be Agile”. Some believe it to be a means to something while others may think it as a mythical perspective not applicable to today’s reality and problems. Well, what if the answer was: “All of the above”? That is where, I believe, the power of the integral perspective can help achieve the true power of agile development.

The integral model includes a concept known as the quadrants. Each quadrant in the integral model offers a perspective believed to be essential for a more complete picture of any given subject. The upper left (UL) quadrant addresses the internal singular view, a.k.a the ‘I’ perspective and the upper right (UR) quadrant addresses the external singular view, the ‘It’ perspective. The lower left (LL) quadrant contains the internal plural perspective, ‘We’, and the lower right (LR) quadrant the ‘Its”. The example below includes some categorized examples of broader aspects of life.

I don’t know if the agile manifesto was intentionally written to include an integral perspective but it just so happens that the four agile values fit almost perfectly in every quadrant:

N.b. ‘Interactions’ may fit in the LL quadrant as well.

Addressing Your Organization’s Developmental Debt

The Debt

This is where things get interesting, at least in my opinion. This may sound like a rant, and maybe it is a rant but I strongly believe that the benefits of throwing this out there far outweigh the risks.

I don’t believe the agile values have been conceived in such a manner that one should take precedence over another. In fact, if that were the case, the values would probably have been written in the following format:

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools over Working software over comprehensive documentation over…”

There’s a reason the agile manifesto includes these four values. The values address many of the shortcomings that have been observed and experienced by some of the brightest minds in the IT and business industry. Furthermore, worldwide attention and focus on agile software development is a testament to the much needed changes in the IT domain. The application of agile methodologies has been partially successful and has in it’s wake created huge heap of developmental debt.

As a scientifically focused industry we have become excellent at devising tools and processes, pushing the limits of innovation every minute if not every second. This incredible ability to innovate, create and build faster, more efficiently and sustainably can be considered as either good or bad. It all depends on the perspective in which it is observed.

One thing I believe we can all agree on is that the rate of technological development has greatly surpassed the rate of personal development. “Why should we consider the rate of personal development of any importance?” For the same reasons outlined by the following agile manifesto values:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”

A few facts

According to the Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 (download link to trend report) 92% percent of the respondents in South East Asia reported Engagement as being an “important” or “very important” trend. What this signifies is that companies understand and recognize that this is a pressing issue and that it needs to be addressed. Furthermore, the Singapore government has recently recognized a deficiency in leadership and innovation amongst its population and is proactively encouraging institutions and organizations in Singapore to include developmental programs in their regular activities to promote innovative thinking and leadership development.

The Agile Link

To quote a famous fellow Canuck – Isn’t it ironic that the agile manifesto provides just the right set of values to address these developmental short comings? Even more ironic is the fact that organizations are adopting ‘agile’ without realizing the full potential of applying all four values! And to be completely transparent, isn’t even more ironic that we, as an agile community, have come up with so many tools and processes (Scrum, Less, DSDM, SAFe, etc…) that, even though of great help to many, have created the same types of pains the agile manifesto had initially set out to alleviate? Numerous debates on the web as to whether these frameworks, processes and tools help or hinder software development are testaments to these pains. Is our misinterpretation, resistance and in many instances greed in regard to the agile manifesto to blame? This is where, I believe, organizations would greatly benefit in taking an integral perspective towards the agile manifesto. Including the left integral quadrants in their ‘agile’ transformations, and hence the two values noted above, could resolve many of the pains they are currently experiencing. At the same time addressing the developmental debt and the many of the pressing issues as outlined in the Deloitte Human Capital Trend 2016 report.

Integral Responsibility

What is being observed at the moment, through various trend reports such as Deloitte and Gallup, is that HR, often responsible for developmental programs, is lagging behind in innovation compared to it’s business and technology counterparts. While this may be true it is absolutely unfair, in my opinion, to stand from afar and throw the blame on to HR so easily for the lack of developmental progress in organizations.

The agile manifesto values have been available since the beginning of the millennia and probably a little before that. In fact, Deming’s principles of inclusive continuous development have been around for over 60 years. We, as business and IT communities, have the responsibility to address this developmental debt within our own circles and give a helping hand to HR in redefining the new organizational ecosystem. HR on its end needs to recognize the current debt and welcome the help. Bureaucratic constraints need to be dealt with and rethought and re-engineered to allow for a more collective effort in coming up with new ideas. We are all part of the problem and therefore should be accountable for some of the problems.

A World-Centric Perspective

There exists a global phenomenon in which technology is advancing at a rate that has never been seen before. And there is no indication of it slowing down in the near future. I believe there is no need to stop or even slow it down. In fact many of the innovations and solutions that have emerged within the last twenty years are truly addressing major pain points in the world. On the other hand we, as an ever growing population, need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers of accumulating developmental debt. The gap between technological advancement and our ability to take wise decisions must not grow. In other words, Developing new technologies and innovating is fine, as long as we develop ourselves along the way to be able to cope with our future creations.

A Few Ideas and Suggestions to Start With…

  • Include and balance all four agile manifesto values in your agile transformation
  • Address the developmental debt while sustaining your agile transformation by including the UL and LL quadrants in your transformation plan
  • Apply an integral perspective to all spheres of development, i.e. individuals, teams, departments and organization
  • Promptly address bureaucratic constraints that are impediments to developmental initiatives
  • Employ agile coaches that are integrally developed (Lysa Adkins is doing a great job at the moment introducing integral concepts to agile coaching… and so are we)
Written by

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email