Saturday, November 25, 2017

Ticket debt - why ticket systems are bad!

Ticket systems are an easy way to organize your work - yet potentially, the most damaging one as well!

What  could be so dangerous about a ticket system, the quick and easy helper tool which has found its way into almost every organization already?

Creating tickets is easy

The better the ticket system, the less effort is required to create a ticket. Some are actually as easy as "New --> (type some text) --> Save" and there you go, that's your ticket.
And this is actually the biggest problem. Let's explore why.

A ticket is an IOU

Let's look really close what a ticket is. It is a description of some work that needs to be done. It's undone work. By documenting this work in a ticket, we create a future promise that this work will get done at some point down the line.
Let's take a small real world example: "Send product offer to Tim Bobbins". That job might just take two minutes to do, or it might take longer (depending on whether Tim gets a standard document or a custom offer). In any case, by opening a ticket, we force our future self to promise to our current self that Tim will get his offer. In complete disregard what our future self will have to do later on, we sign an IOU for some work.

Tickets are a debt

Now that we realize that a ticket is nothing more than an IOU, we realize that we're actually creating some form of debt with each ticket we open. It's really work debt.
Now, just like in the finance world, there is no problem if we take some debt contract that allows us to move freely now while paying off easy rates in the future.
Unfortunately, this analogy hinges on a dangerous assumption: Inflation and business propagation allow us to earn more money with less effort in the future, so 100k Now-Dollars are a burden equal to maybe 80k Future-Dollars.
The working world behaves differently: The time we have at our disposal to do work does not grow or expand, especially not in the short term!
A 24-hour Now-day is equal to a 24-hour Future-day, so the best amount of interest you can afford to make tickets a good deal is zero.

Tickets have a real interest rate

When we borrow from the bank, we usually pay interest on our loan - we service our debt. This service pays for the bank's expenses and compensates inflation. We are fine with any amount of interest rate where our Future-Dollars are still worth less than our Now-Dollars.
Let's return to the discussion of ticket debt, then. Just like in the bank, tickets have some kind of administrative effort. Starting with the (short) time of creating the ticket, we need to administer it, we need to look at it when we work it off, and at some point we 'll to close it.
Depending on how the ticket looks like, the administration and consideration of its message may happen multiple times. Each of these times, we're not doing work, we're servicing ticket debt!

And depending on how your organization has set up your ticket process, this service can take a whole bunch of time - potentially even more than the real work to be done in the context of the ticket!

Ticket debt kills

Once we realize that there is an interest rate associated to tickets, we can look at the effect of this interest.

Here is an example of deadly ticket debt:

As long as there is still flow and the amount of tickets that get serviced equals or exceeds, there's not much of an issue - but when this trend flips and there's more tickets in need of servicing than those getting serviced, the following happens:

1 - Tickets pile up

When you get a bill from your bank, it's usually not much of a hassle, but when you get hundreds, it actually does become a hassle. And we're not only talking about the work of servicing each one, but also about the amount of work invested into keeping track of what still needs to be done. All of a sudden, extra efforts start to be required into managing the pile: Prioritizing, sorting, stashing, deferring, reorganizing - just to name a few.

2 - Ticket debt reduces ROI

Like financial interest, the amount of service interest has no contribution to actual debt reduction. Once you get into a condition where ticket debt grows faster than you can reduce it, the amount of work sunk into service interest can quickly exceed the amount of work sunk into debt reduction.
The increased service interest, especially when coupled to the limited amount of work available means that the ROI of tickets decreases with each additional ticket in the ticket pile - to the point where you may no longer be creating any value!

3 - Ticket debt reduces Value

Let's quickly return to our initial example: If Tim doesn't get his offer in 2 or 3 days, he may no longer remember the conversation and the great deal he's up for. Worse yet, he might have found another vendor in the meantime. By the time your Future Self is getting around to send Tim an offer, Tim may no longer be interested in buying anything at all. The value of the ticket decreases with each day.
Of course, this also means that when you're creating tickets to be served months down the line, you're considering Now-Value, but get Future-Value.


Take some time and look at how, where and why you use tickets in your organization. If you suffer from ticket debt, take a good look on how to reduce the amount of tickets you juggle in order to reduce the ticket debt you're servicing.

There's also a chapter on ticket systems in my book, "Extreme Agility".

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How career progression damages companies

Is "career progression" really necessary? Let us explore how the very concept wreaks havoc in organizations and damages the very thing it's intended to foster - value generation. To illustrate the point, I will use the example of four individuals from my own network.

Greg, the expert

A while ago, I received a text from Greg: "Do you know any company looking for a team lead?" I had worked with Greg. He really enjoyed development work and did a splendid job. "What happened?", I asked. We met. Greg related his story: "I had a talk with HR, asking for a raise. It got rejected, because I was already at the Senior Developer level. I would need to become team lead to get more salary, but there's no vacancy." He was sorely disappointed.
I probed: "Why do you want to be a team lead?" - "Obvious, to get more salary." - "But would it make you happy?" - "No. I hate the organizational stuff related to that role. But I got family - kids to feed." I shook my head: "You're not looking for a team lead role, you're looking for a way to earn more money?" He nodded. We discussed. "How about we find a company that's willing to pay developers as much as you intend to earn?" Long story short, Greg enjoys his developer role in another organization.

Greg's company lost a formidable developer, because "developer" was considered inferior to a management role - both in appreciation and compensation. The loss? A great developer who would never want to be a team lead.

Tom, the misplaced developer

Tom fared better than Greg. He was in a similar dilemma, but slightly more "lucky": He managed to receive a coveted team lead role, with the additional salary on top. Tom's team had high churn rates. He let his responsibilities slide and continued doing his former job, with a new title.

Tom was in a similar boat like Greg: He loathed the responsibilities of a team lead and loved technical work. He never bothered doing the things a team lead should be doing - for example, ensuring people had meaningful work, dealing with impediments or resolving conflicts.

Tom's company suffered a fate worse than Greg's: Instead of losing one developer, they lost an entire team, just because they weren't willing to admit that a great developer doing great development work can receive the appreciation and compensation that their ability commends without needing to be in a leadership role.

Sandy, the underpaid CSR

Working with Sandy was a pleasure. She was amicable, smart, knowledgable and extremely resourceful. It didn't matter what the customer's issue was - she would manage to find a satisfactory solution. Getting a team lead role wasn't difficult for Sandy, and she excelled in that role as well.

Over a cup of coffee, Sandy related that she wanted to switch out of Customer Service. I asked her: "You're great at your job, and you love what you do. Why?" Sandy confined: "CSR roles are notoriously underpaid. A regular worker close to minimum wage, the team lead's near-double salary might sound impressive, but it is still significantly below what others in the company made. If I could get into Engineering, my salary would rise by over 50%."

Given her repute for the company, HR agreed to move Sandy into Engineering as a team lead. She actually did well in her role - being a great organizer and people's person, her lack of engineering expertise didn't count for too much. A small fly in the ointment: Since Sandy had left the CSR's, complaining customers had a much higher churn than before.

Andy, who got it right

And then there was Andy. His job? Close deals and keep customers coming back. He was a classic sales person - and good at that, too. He never played the title game and didn't want to get dragged into titles, either. I asked: "Andy, you've been a salesperson for over a decade now, why aren't you interested in having your own sales team?" Andy leaned back: "I don't need to. My salary is linked to the customers I bring in, and as a team lead, I'd have less time to take care of our customers. I'd probably make less than right now, and the company would have less customers, as well."


Companies are great at setting up systems rewarding behaviours that are detrimental to their success. Corporate ladders are just one more example of that. By creating systems where people's personal goals can't be aligned with corporate goals in the most valuable, sustainable way, companies lose out on the ability of their most talented employees.

Regardless of whether a person's role is technical, business-oriented, customer-oriented, managerial or administrative - if they are happy and good at what they do, don't force them to take another position, title or whatever. Create a reward system which allows them to align their own goals with the corporate's intended goals - not with the designed, corrupted goals that would force them to either stop doing what they do best or to leave.

Winning companies encourage excellence, not gaming the system.