Black Cards – agile handling of technical debt

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? 😉

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