Team Health Debt vs. Technical Debt: They Both Matter

At QDivision, we believe that the best software is built by cross-functional teams working at a sustainable and predictable pace. Project deadlines sometimes challenge these efforts as teams set aside knowledge-sharing activities or work extra hours to meet short-term goals. Occasional compromises are inevitable, but if the team isn’t careful they can become the norm.

Most agile teams are familiar with the concept of technical debt. Any number of legitimate situations can drive teams to, temporarily, accept it as a part of the reality of developing software. Mature teams even use it as a way to avoid over-committing to a particular solution, allowing the team to test concepts with customers before paying the full price of optimizing the software. In order to make this work over time, teams must learn to explicitly agree to accept technical debt and to make plans to address it when appropriate. If they don’t, technical debt can pile up and begin to affect the team’s ability to deliver.

Compromises around team health can have just as real an effect on the team’s ability to deliver software. For instance, if a team repeatedly foregoes cross-training to meet short-term goals, they risk silos of knowledge forming. This can threaten the team’s capabilities in the event that key team members are not present. Another example of health debt is when a team is making a habit of working extra hours to meet commitments, leading to team members burning out.

Along with technical debt, teams should keep track of compromises related to team health they make in order to meet goals, and take intentional steps to pay back the team health debt they incur. In retrospectives, the teams should reflect on the health of the team and take concrete steps to address any issues.

The ability to deliver great software as a team is just as much a product of the team as the software itself. By treating team health debt with as much care as technical debt, teams can ensure that they meet short-term goals while still growing their effectiveness.

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