Tech Uplift Traffic Lights

Tech Uplift Traffic Lights


Ideally, when developing an application (or other computer system), every commit (or piece of work done) should be completed in such a way that the next commit can be applied without rework. When that doesn’t happen, corrective action is required, sometimes called maintenance or technical uplift. This requirement for this work is often described as “technical debt” which needs to be paid off. This can be a helpful way of explaining things to stakeholders but it generally amounts to a large amount of time and money being required to deliver no extra functionality to the application with long periods of no measurable progress - quite a hard sell. While working as Head of Engineering at Ento, we introduced “Tech Uplift Traffic Lights” and by doing so provided a simple visual indicator for the state of take uplift, and importantly one that can be regularly shared with engineers and stakeholders alike to show progress. We have subsequently used this in another project with an Enterprise Systems client who is engaging in a multi-year tech uplift project which has already yielded significant benefits.


The data can be gathered and organised using a process similar to the following:

  1. Ask everyone in the engineering team to list the problems with the status quo (easy to get this from retros).
  2. Score each problems based on their negative impact, with a complete blocker scored at 0/100 and a solved problem scored at 100/100
  3. Identify (at high level) what the solutions to all of the problems may be. You may need architecture sessions to build consensus on these, but the number will be small. Map the solutions to problems as you go.
  4. Estimate the solutions in your usual currency (i.e. story points)
  5. Arrange the problems into groups based on similar causes (these will normally align well with solutions). Aim for 5, no more than 10.
  6. Create a traffic light for each problem group, with its colour based on impact. Red is 0 to 33, Amber at 34 to 66, Green is 67 to 100.

Next Steps

With the data gathered, you can then proceed to focus development effort on maximum result for minimum effort and share the state of the traffic lights with senior stakeholders, the engineering team and the wider company. It’s really important to make sure that the squads working on the Tech Uplift are clear on the benefit that the work is intended to deliver, and that when stories are being closed those benefits are being delivered. Sprint demos are a great way to check in on this, and engagement should be positive, since every Tech Uplift story completed should be making the subsequent stories easier.

John Court 22 Feb 24

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