Is Chronodebt ever a good idea?
Chronodebt is the accumulated cost of remediating all IT assets that aren’t what engineering standards say they should be.
It’s what most of us have been calling “technical debt,” and I would too except that Ward Cunningham and his fellows at the Agile Aliance have already claimed it to mean “the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.”
Anyway, the short answer is yes. Taking on Chronodebt is, in many circumstances, exactly the right choice. The conundrum preceded the advent of business computing by at least a century, when, during construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Southern Pacific Railroad, was faced with a shortage of hardwood railroad ties.
And so, instead of waiting for enough hardwood ties to continue construction, it took on massive Chronodebt in the form of ties made of cheaper and plentiful cottonwood (“Cottonwood now or hardwood too late?“, KJR, 4/28/2003).
The cottonwood ties would only last a few years, but with them the company could generate enough revenue to replace them. Without them it would never have completed enough track to sell a single ticket.
The significant difference between this and most modern companies’ Chronodebt is that the Southern Pacific Railroad paid its Chronodebt off.
Chronodebt, like most other forms of debt, is neither good nor bad as an absolute. As with most other decisions, context matters. In the case of Chronodebt it all depend on what stage of concept development you’re in.
Imagine your “concept” barely deserves the term — it’s really more of a notion. You think it has promise, but you don’t have much in the way of supporting evidence to support it.
It’s time to bet the farm!
And it is, but only if you’re betting someone else’s farm, “someone else” is someone whose friendship you don’t value very much, and you’ve checked with your lawyers to confirm you aren’t at risk when someone else finds themselves farmless.
If it’s your kids’ college fund it’s time to launch Excel, or maybe Access, or an ISP’s generic eCommerce development kit.
If it isn’t all about you … if we’re talking about a corporate setting and it’s a proposal to try something new and different for which there isn’t and can’t be much data to bring to bear on the decision … then it’s still time for Excel, or maybe Access. Or, because it’s a corporation, perhaps SharePoint, or some SaaS product whose licensing terms aren’t too expensive and onerous.
It’s time, that is, for Chronodebt, because doing things the so-called “right way” probably means missing the opportunity altogether. And in fact we might not be talking about Chronodebt at all. Chronodebt in this situation comes from the danger of success, because it only has to be paid off if the idea pans out. Success is, to push the metaphor to the breaking point, the usurious interest rate charged for underinvestment, which wasn’t underinvestment until success happened.
Chronodebt is a good idea during the exploratory phase of innovation management. It’s a bad idea when innovations start to prove out. That’s when it’s time to replace the kludges and prototypes you built the new concept on with more robust and scalable alternatives … time, that is, to pay down the debt, which means investing in sustainability.
That isn’t the whole story, though.
There are times when a company’s whole business model starts to approach its use-by date. Imagine, for example, you’re CEO of a metropolitan daily newspaper and your presses are a major source of corporate Chronodebt. Time to pay it off by replacing them with something more modern?
Probably not. Like it or not (I don’t), newspaper print circulation has been steadily declining for decades and the more important metric — advertising revenue — is in even sharper decline. The best and most advanced presses money can buy won’t sell a single additional newspaper, or, more importantly, attract more advertisers.
As CEO, you tell the god Chronos to take a hike.
If, on the other hand, your on-line news site or mobile app are Chronodebt-bound, that’s another story entirely.
None of this is particularly complicated. And yet, especially in IT circles, we do have a tendency to consider engineering excellence to be an unalloyed and immutable good.
Sometimes, prototypes and kludges are exactly what the situation calls for.
And sometimes the right answer, although painful, is limping along on your ancient legacy systems until they crumble into dust.