Archive for September, 2017

Black Cards – agile handling of technical debt

September 27, 2017

The deadline is looming. Your team is struggling. To ship we take shortcuts that don’t sit well, but necessary. We release, but with a bad feeling. After a while, our effectiveness goes down due to the hidden technical debt. Here’s a way to show and thus be able to follow up and fix these pain-points.

We’ve all been there at crunch-time. Everyone is giving their utmost to ship and take whatever shortcuts that will meet the deadline. All goes “well” and you get something out through the door, albeit with a long tail of bugs. The late evenings have paid off, and the project manager gives kudos to everyone. So why is there still a knot in the developer’s stomach?

At least the customer feels good straight away – or at least after a few weeks of bug fixing. Some iterations later we hear ourselves saying “why does it take so long to fix bugs?” Those shortcuts add up to “technical debt.” For every turn, we add to this invisible mountain of low quality or not good enough solutions.

We have a double-sided problem here:

  • programmers are “forced” to low quality (shortcuts) and feel bad about it,
  • this is “invisible” to the product owner, customer, etc.

This leads unhappy people on every side and slow cycle times. We need an easy way to describe this shortcut and to feed it back through the pipeline to the backlog.

Play the Black Card

Let’s go back to the point in time when we take the shortcut. The developer, that’s usually the person with the best knowledge, should create a Black Card that describes the alternative and possible remedies. Create this card as soon as you took the shortcut. It will be fresh in memory and not weigh on your mind. It is great if you can estimate it at the same time, but not necessary.

A Black Card:

  • Title: Describe the shortcut in business terms (as much as possible)
  • Describe the problem with a few sentences. Add possible risks or consequences if we do not address this debt.
  • Possibly estimate the cost of fixing.

Put it into the backlog. At this point, I always feel better. Unloading that bad feeling is good. Remember to bring it up in the next retrospective. Anything to add? Assign it to the PO for further handling.

Use "black cards" to unload the shortcuts that you had to take. Retrospective it and get them into the backlog at the responsible point in time.

Use "black cards" to unload the shortcuts that you had to take. Retrospective it and get them into the backlog at the responsible point in time.

Hey, as Scrum Master I can even sum up the cards from the iteration and construct a “technical debt diagram.” We can follow the trend. Maybe we should use a black background as to set the mood accordingly? 😉

Add K and Stir

September 23, 2017

In my last blog, I introduced KFika – the smallest way to start sharing Knowledge. And fika1 we have to do anyway. Right? Adding a K to just about any word is a recipe to invent your events. So simple it’s somewhat embarrassing.

Food and knowledge sharing - it just can't go wrong.

Food and knowledge sharing – it just can’t go wrong.

Possibilities are silent, whereas problems scream and cling to your legs. Obviously the latter is impossible to miss. But how to find the former?

A simple technique2 to find those nuggets of insight is to combine two different words. What ideas pop into your head? Let the first trigger another thought and then yet another.

When analysing those ideas, I recommend two distinct phases. At first look at the upsides of each idea – no matter how far-fetched they might seem at first. We need to explore them properly. Treat them with a modicum of respect – at least in this initial phase. One idea tends to lead to the next one, which might be the perfect one.

In the second phase, you sober up and do the regular shot-them-down-thinking. This critical thinking, which is much heralded, has one major flaw. It takes a creative schmuck who is dumb enough to propose those new ideas in the first place. Hence the reason for this two-phased approach.

We’re likely to miss out on much of the follow-up ideas that might stand up to scrutiny. Or perhaps we find something that will “only” improve our current way of working, which is quite good when you think about it.

General Recipe for Finding Possibilities:

  1. Combine two (very) different words and see what ideas turn up.
  2. Positive phase: Analyse by starting every sentence with “yes, and we could…” We need to find all possible ideas and whatever thought they might trigger.
  3. Critical phase: Analyse why it might not work and what parts could improve the current way of thinking or working.
  4. Experiment and learn.

My simple formula to find a new type of knowledge event is to add “K” (as in kompetens3 or knowledge) to just about any word. What might this mean? How would that be of use? KFika is such a word. Another might be KLunch.

You might know this by the term “brown-bagging.” In short, you make sure there are sandwiches (typically in a brown bag) for everyone and someone who will share knowledge.

The lunch version does cost a bit more than a regular fika – both money-wise and time-wise for the person speaking. She or he needs to prepare.

I propose you address the second drawback first. Find a subject that with your company’s agenda, then it will be a lot easier to find a sponsor like your boss or HR. If you fail, then go for it anyway. An interesting subject will attract people anyway. Chances are you will be shaming the company into footing the bill 🙂

How do you find the subject and speaker? Talk to whoever you meet at the coffee machine. Has anyone done something worthwhile spreading on their project? I believe I can guarantee it. Ask about their work. What acronyms can you find? What did they enjoy? What was hard? It doesn’t take long to notice their passion points. Finally, go for the kill; Ask for them to share that knowledge. Since they already struggled to gain that particular experience, there isn’t much work to package and share.

The K Recipe:

  1. Combine the word “Knowledge” and some other word.
  2. What kind of experiment or event4 does this trigger?
  3. Look for people with passion points. Ask them to share it in whatever form makes them comfortable.
  4. Set a date, book a room and some food. Spread the word.
  5. Repeat. By third time this will be a tradition and easier to do.

At one company where I worked, we had significant recurring events with lots of lectures and labs. Nearly everyone shared their knowledge. The walls are still ingrained with this thinking. I’d like to believe that was one of the reasons why we didn’t have a proper HR department. Pay attention to people and ask them to share their knowledge. It is a powerful recipe for happy colleagues.

So add K to whatever and brain-storm what it could mean. Enjoy!


  1. Fika is the Swedish “afternoon tea”. Except it is typically coffee and a bun, both before and after lunch.
  2. I might be fumbling Edward de Bono lateral thinking somewhat. So go for the source if you can:
  3. Kompetens is my word for the notion of systematic and sustained effort of boosting your competencies. It just happens to be Swedish for Competence. 🙂
  4. Yes, you could use any word here. In preparation for long-haul flight with my colleagues, I combined K and in-flight magazine. The result was a pack of programming articles and a Java crossword that I constructed. I still remember the captain’s word of over the speaker system as we taxied out to the airstrip. ”Can all the passenger sit down.” I did manage to hand out the puzzle 🙂