CIO Leadership

The Problem May Not Be Technology Debt

Tech debt is a real cost. But there is a greater debt companies should fear, and on the flip side, it’s the one investment that must be made regardless of economic conditions.

Joe Woodruff


March 30, 2023

In tech debt, you pay the price for what you did. In opportunity debt, you pay the price for what you didn’t do.

A bronze statue stood outside the home of Lysippos, the famed Greek sculptor. 

The statue was his creation, a depiction of a young man with winged feet, a large lock of hair on the front of his head but bald in the back.

The inscription on it reads:

“What is thy name? My name is Opportunity.”

“Why do you have wings on our feet?” “That I will be able to fly efficiently.”

“How come you have such a big forelock?” “That men will be able to apprehend me when I arrive.”

“Can you tell me why you are bald in the back?” “That no one will be able to catch me as I pass.”

You have heard of technical debt. In a recent consultation, I ran into a greater debt. The lines of business in the company are struggling because of the lack of technology in place. My consulting partner said it best as he and I were debriefing. 

“They have an opportunity debt,” he said.

I like the phrase. It made me think.

Reframing Decisions By Opportunity Debt

You don’t regret what you did so much as what you didn’t do. I have plenty of those stories in my life. 

So does your business. 

In tech debt, you pay the price for what you did. In opportunity debt, you pay the price for what you didn’t do.

Tech debt gets paid down as you rework, resign and design systems and applications. It’s not easy and takes time.

Opportunity debt is a different animal. It’s usually not paid on an installment plan. The debt comes due. You can no longer dance around it, bandage it, or piecemeal it. Pay up or be evicted. 

Opportunity debt is severe because it is rooted in a corporate mindset. Whereas tech debt may have been accumulated because companies did what they could with what they had, opportunity debt exists because technology wasn’t valued. 

That’s a big deal. 

When technology is seen as an add-on rather than a fabric of being, opportunities are lost. 

Surprisingly, in an age when technology surrounds everything we do, it is still seen as a “tool”, a way of business being more efficient. Please. 

Technology is opportunity. 

Your competitors know it. Your customers expect it. Your clients demand it. 

When business leaders still think more of bottom lines along the way rather than bottoming out as opportunity passes by, debt is building and the foundation is shaking. 

Time is not the master of opportunity. But we treat her as such. We say things like, “Now is not the time” or “We can delay that action” and the truth is, opportunity is bald in the back. You can’t grab it once it passes.

Opportunity is the right time. Opportunity is what time has been waiting for. 

Money is not the master of opportunity either. Money looks for opportunity. 

So What Then?

Opportunity isn’t just lost. It creates debt.

The question to be asking leaders of business is “How far behind will you be if you don’t take this opportunity now?”

I have worked with companies that wished they had incorporated technology sooner or invested in their employees earlier or studied their market better and previously or had the information then that they have now. 

They don’t get to start from the beginning. They are starting from behind. They don’t get to change slowly. They must change now. 

I understand why businesses are being extra diligent with budgets these days. Fear is a monster and she feeds on uncertainty. 

But we must fight to be tech diligent. The one thing greater than fear is vision. Clear vision never overlooks opportunity. 

Her name is technology. She has wings to fly efficiently, a long forelock of hair in the front to take hold of, and nothing in the back to grasp if she passes by. 

Put her in your front yard. Make it hard for any to ignore. 


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