After years of being a Transformation Consultant and a yoga enthusiast, I have learned that technical debt and being out-of-touch with my yoga practice share many similarities. This dawned on me the other night as I struggled with pigeon pose—a pose I once mastered—while my instructor eased into it as if she’d been born in that position.
This session taught me that, to be manageable over time, technical debt and yoga require two things: regular, consistent practice and very clear intention. Here’s why:
Lack of Practice Hurts Long-Term Goals
For the past 25 years, yoga has been in and out of my life. When it’s out of my life, my focus and intention suffers, which impedes my long-term goals of health, wellness, flexibility, strength, and stamina. The domino effect is incredible and somewhat destructive: I don’t eat as well, I am prone to a shorter temper, and I have trouble focusing. When I do attend an occasional class, I grunt, I struggle, and I find that more often than not, my nose is nowhere near my knees in Forward Fold pose.
Like falling out of practice with yoga, technical debt has many long-term hindrances. Most development teams strive to become a high-performing team with a reputation for delivering meaningful business value, but when technical debt creeps into their work—whether it comes from the client or our shortcuts—the value they deliver decreases. Unmanaged technical debt often costs the client in hard dollars—ROI, competitive advantage, and market loss—and the team in soft dollars—credibility, productivity, and trust. Technical debt is non-trivial, insidious, and best handled as soon as it is discovered—or at the very least, before it has a chance to take hold and hurt you down the road.
The Solution: Include a conversation about technical debt in your team’s Retrospective. Ask the question, ‘Did we incur any tech debt this Sprint?’ If you did, dig in and learn from it: What happened that caused the tech debt? Where did it originate? When did we learn about it? How did we make the decision to incur it? How much will this cost us (and the client)? These and other questions (coming from a place of curiosity and not blame), will help your team remedy the situation, and raise awareness that everyone is responsible for tech debt.
Intention is Key to Team Success
In 1993, when I first discovered yoga, my practice was superficial and not much more than a routine set of poses and movements. I found satisfaction in simply doing the same movements repeatedly, almost mindlessly. A year or two in, something shifted: I became intentional about my practice, my breath, and my movements. I noticed how in Eagle pose, my right shoulder would twinge from a previous rotator cuff injury, which forced me to breathe through that stiffness and imagine the scar tissue releasing. I also noticed how my torso tingled as it was being stretched from one side of the room to the other in Extended Side Angle pose.
After a few more years and taking it a layer deeper, I would enter and begin each class with an intention: A plan for the session that would move me from harried, tired, and sore to calm, restored and focused. I would exit and end each class with a renewed vision, questions answered and clarity of thought.
Similarly, newly formed Development Teams are often told to ‘just start sprinting’ because ‘you’ll figure it out as we go along.’ This leadership direction fosters a lack of clear intention at the team level, which in turn, creates a short-sighted recipe for disaster, re-work and a backlog of high-priced technical debt. This becomes a business agility anti-pattern, leading to the destruction of the team’s productivity, morale and success—and it happens frequently, even when teams use Scrum as a framework.
The Solution: Before successful teams begin ‘sprinting,’ they envision, they create, they brainstorm, and they engage critical thinking skills that tap into a wealth of knowledge. And because of this, when they do start ‘sprinting,’ there is an overall plan, an intention, and a vision for the product. This is strategic, Quadrant II work, which according to author Stephen Covey, is important but not urgent, and yet it moves us closer to our long-term goals more effectively. Additionally, this approach encourages myriad voices to contribute to a rich, robust conversation that challenges assumptions, uncovers deep technical considerations, and highlights risks and dependencies before they occur.
As I sit here this morning and look at the absence of yoga classes on my calendar, I’m reminded to be gentle with myself. An outsider might say I’m not committed to yoga. But getting back into practice requires a change in thinking and a willingness to start with a clean slate. In fact, the mental toll that occurs is probably the worst part of falling out of practice. Instead of berating my waning yoga practice, I’ll start small, get curious about why the classes have fallen off, and let go of the endless excuses for not going so that I can re-introduce one class a week into my routine.
When my team recognizes that technical debt is creeping into their Sprint—and feels the same burden—I emphatically remind them that they can start with a clean slate, apply empiricism and move forward with a renewed and refocused dedication to technical excellence.