Cultural Debt

Chris Potter

I thought I had an epiphany the other day. I was thinking about Technical Debt, how an application can build up Technical Debt through doing things quickly or with less attention to detail, instead of doing things correctly. Taking shortcuts to the answer instead of doing it the proper way. And then I thought “what if an organization does the same thing”? I went on to call it “Cultural Debt”. I was thrilled that I had just discovered a new sociological concept.

Until I looked it up on the Internet and found out that someone had discovered it before me. 🙁

Like technical debt, cultural debt arises as a result of an organization taking shortcuts to various problems. The build-up of cultural debt is a consequence of an organization losing the trust of it’s people.  You’ve all seen this before, a situation where someone says that they’ll do something . and they fail. And then they tell you again in a different area that they’ll do something . and they don’t. The constant promising and failing to deliver builds up the cultural debt that is not just a lack of trust, but an actual impediment to rebuilding that trust.

Whereas trust is the lubricant that allows an organization to work smoothly, cultural debt is a spanner in the works that actively works against that trust. Research has shown that a bad event has twice the impact of a good event. So if something bad happens it takes two good things to break even: one to pull the spanner and the other to get things moving again.

From a cultural debt perspective, this has a huge impact. If the organization fails to live up to one promise they need to keep two more to break in. And not just any two promises, but two promises of the same magnitude. If the organization fails to live up to promises or expectations repeatedly the cultural debt grows much faster than the organization can correct. And like any self-fulfilling prophecy once the tipping point has been reached it is well-nigh impossible to bring it back.

There are short term and long term solutions. Long-term solutions include things like not making promises you can’t keep, making good on those that you do make and generally tallying significantly more successes than failures. Short-term solutions are harder to come by. If you’ve got a lot of cultural debt you need a seismic change to try and wipe out that debt. Seismic changes are so radical in nature that the organization appears “new” and the cultural debt can be significantly reduced. Be warned, however, that if it is just the appearance of a seismic change, but the change did not occur or was not as significant as expected, you may fatally kill the culture and have to start from scratch.

Start from scratch?  That is almost what it sounds like. Significant members of the team will abandon the organization and seek work elsewhere.  Many people believe that employees are replaceable, that in a tough market it is easy to find someone to fill a position.  And while that may be true, Forbes says that:

Can a company hire someone to fill a position to replace someone else? Of course they can. In today’s market, the world is ripe with candidates who are eager and willing to take the job. But putting a behind in a seat doesn’t replace a great employee. It simply puts a new behind in a seat.

Cultural debt can be the impetus for someone leaving.  Losing the trust of those that work for you can do significant harm to the organization.  Imagine having to rebuild a company that has been in existence for years.  There is a lot of knowledge capital that gets lost.  A lot of goodwill with other organizations.

Cultural debt.  Ignore it at your own peril.

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