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September 29, 2023
7 min read

How to Handle Technical Debt in Scrum? Is Product Backlog the Best Way?

Technical debt in Scrum can compromise the long-term stability and maintainability of a software product. So, let's discuss how to handle technical debt with product backlog and other ways.
Anton Versal
Anton Versal
Let's learn how to deal with technical debt in Scrum

Considering the fast-paced software industry, it is not uncommon for the development team to take shortcuts in the code, deliver low-quality code, make poor design decisions, and do similar activities. Such practices can bring short-term solutions but compromise a software product's long-term stability and maintainability. This phenomenon, commonly known as "technical debt", is a common concern and the major demotivator for many Scrum teams. Therefore, this article intends to discuss in detail how to handle technical debt in Scrum, especially evaluating the role of product backlog in this situation.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is the set of tasks that the development teams have left undone to accelerate the product delivery process. It can be of any type, such as code debt, infrastructure debt, design debt, test debt, documentation debt, requirement debt, process debt, etc.

Sometimes, the technical debt is a planned process where the development team and the Product Owner decide which features to exclude for the time being. However, sometimes, the development team unintentionally incurs technical debt.

Many reasons can lead to technical debt, such as:

  • The team is lagging behind the schedule and needs to exclude a few features to meet the deadline.
  • The team lacks proper understanding or experience of the particular project/technology, leading to unintentional inefficient implementation.
  • Development team members might follow unhealthy development practices, like shortcuts in the code, poor coding, etc.
  • Unexpected complexities or bottlenecks during the development process, compromising some features.
  • Changing requirements from stakeholders, forcing the team to take shortcuts.

All the above scenarios can pile up technical debt. Therefore, it is essential to recognize and address technical debt timely to ensure healthy software delivery. Failing to do so can lead to a decrease in team morale, an increase in defects, a rise in maintenance costs, and unsatisfactory customers. So, let's now shift our focus to how to tackle technical debt effectively.

The Role of Product Backlog in Handling Technical Debt

When a Scrum team is stuck with technical debt, the first thing that comes to mind to address the debt items is to include them in the product backlog. The product backlog is a single source of requirements, as per the Scrum Guide. In every sprint, the development team takes a few items from the product backlog and works on them.

So, one approach is that the development team and Product Owner conduct a backlog refinement meeting and add the main technical debt items to the backlog. Afterward, they can gradually work on those items in the following sprints until they are all tackled.

Although product backlog seems an effective way to handle technical debt, there are a few complications in this process, as follows:

1. Willingness of the Product Owner

Since the Product Owner creates and prioritizes the product backlog, he should be willing to include technical debt items in the backlog. Scrum does not force the Product Owner to accept the development team's debt. So, if the Product Owner rejects incorporating debts in the product backlog, then the development team will have to follow accordingly.

2. The Main Purpose of Product Backlog

The product backlog goes through a process of estimation where the team estimates the effort required to complete the backlog using techniques like Async Poker, Planning Poker, T-Shirt Sizing, Dot Voting, etc. The estimation is also supposed to include the time/effort to fix the technical debt. So, the product backlog does not seem to have room for addressing technical debt. This point might again resist the Product Owner from adding technical debt to the product backlog.

3. The Technicality of Technical Debt Items

The technical debt items are "technical", which are better understood by the development team. So, even if the Product Owner is willing to add technical debt items to the product backlog, he might struggle to prioritize those items with existing ones.

All the above three complications might stop the development team from adding technical debt to the product backlog. However, if the development team still wants to make this happen, then the below steps can be beneficial to handle technical debt through product backlog:

  1. List all technical debt items the team wants to fix.
  2. Educate the Product Owner about the importance of fixing the technical debt and the consequences of failure.
  3. Once the Product Owner shows willingness, conduct a backlog refinement meeting with the Product Owner. In this meeting, estimate the efforts required to fix debt items and prioritize them in the product backlog.
  4. In the next sprints, gradually include and resolve the technical debt items.

This way, a Scrum team can collaborate with the Product Owner and proficiently handle the technical debt matter using the product backlog.

Other Ways to Deal with Technical Debt

The product backlog is not the only way to deal with technical debt. There are a few other ways Scrum teams can try out to reduce debt and improve efficiency. Some of those ways are listed below:

1. Make a Technical Debt Register

The development team should create a technical debt register that documents and tracks all the technical debt items. This helps the team to have a central record of technical debt, making them aware of what things they are missing out on and that nothing gets forgotten. Moreover, the team should regularly review and update the register. This way, they can gradually use the register to address the technical debt items.

2. Make Debt Transparent and Take Responsibility

Whenever software faces bugs or other issues, it's the development team that gets blamed. Even if the development team was continuously pushed with new feature demands or changes, no one would factor that element as the reason behind software malfunction. Stakeholders expect the Scrum team to deliver top-notch software products regardless of the challenges.

The reason for telling this story is to let the development team know that they should take responsibility instead of blaming others. They are the only team that can resolve the technical debt. So, encourage a transparent and open communication environment where every member can freely share the issues while the rest of the team works collaboratively to tackle complications effectively.

3. Set Metrics

If the technical debts are mostly related to poor software quality, then another effective way to handle and reduce such debts is by using metrics. For instance, bug count, code complexity in terms of the number of branches, cost of delay, cyclomatic complexity, and similar metrics can help identify technical debts timely and take measures accordingly. Therefore, the Scrum team should set some internal rules and metrics that can help evaluate technical debt's presence and impact.

4. Refactoring Sprints

Not all sprints are meant to focus on new features. The development team should dedicate one or more sprints to address technical debt. In such sprints, the team can dedicate all its focus to fixing the debt items. This way, they can tackle technical debt timely before it becomes a bigger concern.

5. Pair Programming

Pair programming is when two developers work collaboratively on the same code. This approach provides an opportunity for knowledge sharing and instant code review, which helps pinpoint and eradicate technical debt immediately. Besides that, pair programming empowers developers to discuss best practices and make quality design decisions, leading to high-quality coding.

How to Avoid Technical Debt?

Besides learning how to mitigate technical debt, a Scrum team should also adhere to practices that can avoid technical debt in the first place. So, some of those practices are as follows:

1. Well-Defined Requirements

Complicated requirements or changing demands can often impact the development team's productivity. Therefore, it is important that requirements are clear and well-defined while the changes are not requested during sprints. Such practices empower the development team to proceed with their plans with minimal distractions.

2. Thorough Planning

Planning is another valuable key to avoiding technical debt. During sprint planning, the development team should thoroughly look into the requirements and complexity of the items and sprint goal(s). They should clear up all their doubts and set the sprint duration in which they can deliver the required output efficiently. Even if members face complications during development, they should use the Daily Scrum meeting as an opportunity to discuss issues and get relevant feedback.

3. Balanced Sprints Workloads

The reason behind technical debt is often the pressure to deliver a high volume of features within a tight sprint timeframe. This pressure leads to shortcuts, compromising the quality in the long run. Therefore, the development team should also try to pick balanced sprint workloads they can handle easily without stressing themselves.

4. Ensure Transparency in the Development Process

Transparency is another useful tool to prevent technical debt. A transparent communication environment helps team members to openly discuss issues and find solutions collectively. Therefore, try to incorporate a culture of open communication and transparency.

Wrapping Up

Technical debt can lead to serious consequences in the long run for the Scrum team and the organization. Therefore, managing technical debt effectively should be a core practice of today's Scrum teams. As discussed above, the product backlog is an effective way to handle technical debts if the Product Owner shows willingness. Alternatively, the team can follow the other methods discussed in this article to deal with technical debt efficiently. To sum up, technical debt is a common and serious concern of Scrum teams, so it should be approached strategically and proactively.

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