Developer’s dilemma: When technical debt stifles innovation and productivity

Technical debt can hinder productivity and stunt innovation, directly impacting team morale, employee retention, and recruitment efforts.

As technical debt levels reach unprecedented highs, organizations are still faced with increased pressure to innovate and future-proof. But to pay down technical debt, developers are spending almost half of their work week (17.5 hours) maintaining, debugging, refactoring, and modifying code.1 The consequences of this time spent on technical debt extend beyond budgeting for tech stacks and staff—they impact future innovation, team morale, recruitment, and retention. In this 7-minute read, we delve into the different ways technical debt accumulates during a typical sprint and how to better your chances of managing the balance of technical debt and innovation.

Where do you accumulate the most technical debt, and what can you do about it?

More often than not, in today’s fast-paced digital landscape, the effects of technical debt tend to go unnoticed or get deprioritized, despite 78% of companies accruing more technical debt in 2021 than in previous years.2

During a typical sprint, teams can inadvertently set themselves back by prioritizing speed over quality, contributing to the accumulation of technical debt. One of the biggest causes of this is the failure to understand requirements. If business requirements are not accurately described with enough detail, it can lead to wasted resources and hours, leaving the end result misaligned and often requiring additional time to get the product up to the correct standards. Other times, ambiguity can lead teams to exclude critical features altogether. These oversights or miscommunications can interfere with your company’s time to build and market new products or releases, putting you behind the competition and leaving you with additional technical debt to pay off.

Even when requirements are clear and on track, before you realize it, an idea for a new feature can be added to the project. These brainstorms and new ideas are exciting, so it’s difficult to resist the urge to take the initiative and implement them right away. And while these new features may not be critical, they are often justified by the collective thought that “someday we may need this.” This is one of the most common ways to accumulate additional debt—rather than ensuring critical features are done well, continuing to add new features, which likely will result in broken code, bugs, or extended completion times. And in many cases, “YAGNI: You Aren’t Gonna Need It,” so it’s better to focus on critical features first, then scale.3

Understanding that this will save your team time in the future and being mindful of accumulating more technical debt, restrain the focus to what you actually need rather than what you might need; thus ensuring that all teams are aligned to end-user requirements. Product and technical teams can focus on the critical aspects they can control to mitigate the risk of adding too much technical debt. One method to enforce this practice is to build a process for peer-reviewing code and requirements. Another could be dedicating a day to eliminating a manageable piece of debt that causes friction in the product. Find what works for your organization—there are many effective ways to foster communication across teams and ensure technical considerations are clear, collaborative, and deliberate.

However, even with strategies in place to avoid accumulating too much debt, it is important to recognize that in the long run, there is no way to escape technical debt. Even in the absence of bad code or poorly written requirements, innovation can still suffer as tech teams spend considerable time paying down existing debts.

Innovation and the catch-22 of technical debt

Technical debt is a byproduct of increased demand for innovation. We took note of this as the COVID-19 pandemic caused rapid digitization, and the pressure to innovate resulted in unprecedented levels of technical debt. We see a similar trend today with the current surge in automation technology. A global study revealed that automation is on the rise, with 91% of organizations experiencing demand from their business teams.4 And while technical teams are tasked with making this possible through restructuring existing applications and data landscapes, more than 80% of organizations worry that supporting automation will compound their technical debt.5 This is a clear example of the difficult relationship between innovation and technical debt—it’s equally as important to pay off existing debts as it is to plan for the future and embrace emerging technologies.

The software development lifecycle (SDLC) is often compromised to meet critical deadlines and budgetary constraints. Engineering and product teams are aware of the strain put on architecture, methodology, documentation, and testing, when project managers move dates or technical teams. It is no surprise that when the SDLC shifts, the quality of software diminishes. While there is a multitude of tools on the market to scan static code and identify technical debt, these share very limited insight. Researchers have studied tools like these on the market and concluded that no single tool provides a holistic view.6 An automation tool can be helpful in decision-making, however, there are so many other variables to consider. These may not be able to detect an architectural debt, such as tightly coupled code, which can be combated with proactive approaches.

A few best practices can help teams navigate better in times of constraint, like implementing a design pattern library customized to your organization’s developments. Another preemptive suggestion is maintaining a code repository that allows everyone in the organization to centrally locate current projects, pull requests, documentation, and more.

Beyond the challenges previously identified, technical debt can also adversely affect team morale and productivity. Technical debt takes up valuable time, and project teams are not immune to burnout despite being eager to innovate. Researchers discovered there is typically a negative correlation associated with developers’ morale and productivity when it comes to technical debt.7 In many cases, technical debt occurs unintentionally and impedes developers’ progress toward new technologies and features. Associating this with wasted time, and losing confidence in their work, developers can experience a drop in morale. Low morale across teams can result in higher staff turnover, longer completion times, and more mistakes, so it’s important to be strategic and intentional when project planning and managing associated technical debt.

There are productive ways to balance technical debt with innovation in a way that encourages teams to feel excited about their work and perform at their best. When there is a roadmap for the future in place and a set structure to operate within, tech teams have a sense of clarity and confidence in their work that can translate to progress toward shared goals. And with a system in place to deal with code quality and pay down debt, software quality improves. Without processes to deal with inevitable debt and prevent unintentional debt, teams can fall into a vicious cycle of discontented developers who are less productive and less confident in their work.

Recruiting and retaining top talent

Considering the competitive market around talent, this balance between innovation and technical debt is crucial to recruitment and retention efforts. Recently, a survey of nearly 1,000 software developers around the world found that only 48% of them are definitely planning to remain with their current employer.8 This number dropped to 29% when asked if they plan to remain with their current employer for 2 years.9 As panelists dug deeper, they determined developers who were more likely to leave felt their teams were not as productive and did not have the tools to do their jobs well.10 Knowing that technical debt can drastically impact productivity, it’s clear that it correlates with talent retention. Ensuring your organization has practices in place to keep everyone productive and happy while still looking to the future is a big priority.

The demand for software development talent continues to skyrocket, with forecasts indicating there will be four million open software development roles in 2025.11 Yet the supply of qualified individuals is not keeping pace. As digital innovation accelerates, both IT and talent acquisition leaders recognize the importance of recruiting and retaining talent, especially when technical roles remain unfilled for 62 days on average.12 People want to work for forward-thinking, innovative organizations, so recruiting for roles that involve only monotonous tasks associated with technical debt is a difficult sell. Balancing the payoff while still allowing your resources the chance to be involved in new projects can be the difference between finding the right talent for the job and straining internal teams.

Final thoughts on innovation, productivity, and technical debt

To ensure your team’s and company’s overall success, it’s important to strike a balance between technical debt, paying it off, and fostering innovation — and to find what that looks like for your organization. Whether unintentionally accrued during a sprint or intentionally accrued through a new tech implementation, mishandling technical debt can burn out your teams and hinder productivity. Changes to internal processes can drastically improve team morale and productivity, alleviate recruitment and retention issues, and further a culture of innovation. In an age where remaining competitive means constantly innovating, teams with set processes to manage technical debt can perform better and improve the quality of their new initiatives in the future.

If managing your technical debt puts a strain on internal teams, work with a trusted partner to develop a plan, strategize, and execute to reach your innovation goals. CAI has a demonstrated history of working with private and public organizations to help them navigate their digital transformation and modernization journeys.

Learn more about strategically accruing and paying down technical debt.


  2. Software AG News Center. January 19, 2022.
  3. Henrique Siebert Domareski, “DRY, KISS & YAGNI Principles,” Medium, July 14, 2020,
  4. “Business Automation: A Guide for Doing More with Less - Salesforce EMEA Blog,”, July 5, 2023,
  5. “Business Automation: A Guide for Doing More with Less - Salesforce EMEA Blog,”, July 5, 2023, .
  6. Nikhil Oswal, “Technical Debt: Identify, Measure and Monitor,”, October 28, 2019,
  7. Besker, Terese, Bosch, Jan, Martini, Antonio. "Technical Debt Cripples Software Developer Productivity - A longitudinal study on developers' daily software development work." ResearchGate. May 2018.'_daily_software_development_work.
  8. Outsystems. “Developer Engagement Report: Are Your Developers Happy or Halfway out the Door?”, October 25, 2022.
  9. Outsystems. “Developer Engagement Report: Are Your Developers Happy or Halfway out the Door?”
  10. Outsystems. “Developer Engagement Report: Are Your Developers Happy or Halfway out the Door?”
  12. Nikoletta Bika, “Key Hiring Metrics: Useful Benchmarks for Tech Roles,” Recruiting Resources: How to Recruit and Hire Better, January 10, 2019,

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