Sunday, March 19, 2017

Let's talk about Communication Debt

During a recent discussion on LinkedIn, one comment was made that we're talking a lot about technical debt - yet not about communication debt. While it's easy to overstretch the debt metaphor, communication debt arises frequently and it is at least as damaging as technical debt. In the best case, the debt is outright prohibitive, forcing us to deal with it immediately. In the worst case, we never get around resolving it until the problems are beyond redemption. So, let's take a look ...

Communication debt is the communication we should have had, but didn't.

Why is communication debt a problem?

Missing or misfired communication creates a situation where people who should be on a similar level aren't. Why is that even a problem? Here are some examples:

Example 1: Short-term debt
A Product Owner explains the feature that developers need to create. Developers can't help wondering what the user would want to do with this feature, as it is very similar to some existing functionality, except that it's more complicated.
Here, failure to communicate user needs and system capabilities resulted in wasted time, money and dissatisfied users.
Fast feedback loops make short-term debt is easy to discover. It is rather simple to resolve.

Example 2: Mid-term debt
A developer uses variable names that are optimized for typing effort. For instance, instead of naming the fields "invoiceTotal = netTotal  + taxAmount", the code reads "X = i+t".  This kind of code works, yet in order to work on the same code later, significant additional effort needs to be spent to decipher what the cryptic variables mean and why the program does what it's supposed to.

Example 3: Long-term debt
Tina is the corporate architect. When a new feature is requested, Tina is able to decide fast and correct which adjustments need to be made in which place of the corporate infrastructure. One day, Tina receives a good offer from a different company and leaves. When she is gone, the entire company falls into disarray, because nobody was on her level. For many months, people waste time with reverse analysis, trying to uncover what needs to be done.

The Impact of communication debt

As hinted in the examples above, the impact of communication debt may differ. Short-term debt is most likely to result in strongly felt reductions of effectivity, while long-term debt may be hidden until a crippling blow hits productivity.

Here are a few ways in which communication debt impacts you:

  • Confusion about the intention of tasks
  • Confusion about the purpose of things
  • Wasting time acquiring existing information
  • Wasting time discovering "missing links"
  • Not getting things done because of lacking information
  • Doing things "wrong" because of lacking information

Hints at existing communication debt

Even before you experience the impact of communication debt, you may experience hints that there may be hidden communication debt. These hints are "smoke detectors" indicating that there may be a problem:

  • Intention:
    • You don't get the point of the communication
    • You missed the point of the communication
    • You feel patronized by trivial communication
  • Value:
    • You feel you didn't learn anything after communicating
    • The information doesn't help you further
    • The information leads you in a wrong direction
  • Talking:
    • You think that you need to talk, but feel uneasy about it
    • You feel that you're talking to each other, yet not with each other
    • Conversations raise negative emotions, such as anger, indignation, contempt
  • Availability:
    • Discussions that should happen, don't
    • Important information takes time to get
    • Existing information is not available upon request

  • Meetings:
    • Status meetings
    • Meetings which cover multiple topics at once
    • High-level summary meetings with little outcome
    • Attendants that can only contribute marginally
  • Documentation:
    • Knowledge is documented rather than conveyed face-to-face
    • Things that were discussed face-to-face get documented "as proof"
    • Communication happens asynchronous via documentation hand-over
  • Tools:
    • People use tools to avoid face-to-face conversation
    • Tickets are sent among people sitting in the same office space
    • Communication gets "standardized" via templates
  • Complexity:
    • It's difficult to discover who knows someone who has the information you need
    • Information is fragmented or only partially available
    • Information requires keys (meta-information) to comprehend


Years ago, I jested: "How do you know you work in Telecommunications? Because direct communication doesn't work." Communication debt is everywhere. It happens even in the commercial and social media. It can be devastating, yet few people tackle the problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment