How to deal with technical debt as a product manager?

Technical debt work MUST be treated like any other work request you receive, i.e. work requests from Technical Delivery are submitted and analysed in terms of business value and customer value just as any other request from any other stakeholder. This is important so that all work can be effort sized and estimated, allowing the business to analyse the context and prioritisation according to the business priorities and product operational cadence you are operating with.

Let’s expand. You can expect inputs for work requests from a very wide range of stakeholders:

Just as much as you centralise work requests, ideas etc., from various stakeholders, R&D/Deliver is responsible for package work requests related to tackling technical debt and helping you understand the urgency/priority of their recommendations, why it matters, what the impact it should this work be delayed.

These work requests would need to be then evaluated and prioritised as part of your evaluation and prioritisation engine:

You need to ensure that you can identify a release cadence on how you want to prioritise releases (and what type of work is done in them). This, in turn, gives clarity and space to your teams to:

  • Deliver the new shiny stuff the business wants to sell
  • Address underlying work needed to continue delivering the experiences and scaling capabilities needed to support the business in delivering continued value to its customers.

Once you have clarity around the work requests and the impact in terms of business value/customer value, I then recommend classifying the work requests in terms of Work Value Elements (WaVEs). For software and data delivery projects, you can find my recommended base WaVEs here.

Once your work is classified and you have a sense of effort/priority, you can use your WaVEs, operational cadence, and product release cadence to determine the % investment you want to do in which WaVE area.

I typically start with a % distribution based on the upcoming release type/priority. I work with the business to determine what % of effort will be assigned to which WaVE category. This means you can then use the MAINT WaVE to allocate work to maintain the product's value, including technical debt.

With this approach:

  • The business can be put in control of how effort is allocated towards release types
  • Your focus is centralised around classifying work and scheduling it in the bounds as set by the business
  • No one is surprised, and prioritised can be done within business context and value desired.

I suggest you check out my expanded essays around this:

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How to deal with technical debt as a product manager?

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