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In Your Debt

Conversations earlier this year about national and student debt reminded me of a different framing for debt I learned of last year. When I was introduced to the concept of organizational debt I was immediately intrigued.

This framing, originated in the tech start-up environment as “technical debt”, was originally defined as “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages” – built-in inefficiencies with little costs (“interest”) that the organization pays over and over again. With software, that could be a coding inefficiency. An organizational example would be that you open your organization’s account with a local bank that your treasurer favors. Now that she’s no longer an officer, someone is obliged to drive to a distant location every time your organization needs an in-person transaction.

Aha, I thought – this concept is a great way to visualize other costs hidden in our structures. How about baked-in aspects of culture (conflict-avoidance? overemphasis on credentials?) that stifle valuable contributions or reduce the size of our talent pool? Organizational debt doesn’t only have to come from compromises we write into the bylaws, it could be a category for every concept we import into an organization that sucks down what we can give back.

Eliminating organizational debt feels less about redemption, though, and more about evolution. As a learning, changing organization, we’ll always be making decisions that balance needs of the moment with potential costs down the line. Aaron Dignan points out in the article linked above that every time an organization moves into a new phase of development, systems that seemed perfect naturally don’t work as well any more - it’s more likely they become an obstacle to more success. Similarly, as our understanding increases, we need to update our behaviors to fit.

I’ve been preparing for a webinar on good group decision-making. One of the methods I’ll cover does a good job at creating an expectation of ongoing learning. The whole group makes a decision together, not with majority vote, but with consent. It’s designed to encourage experimentation (which pure consensus processes often shut down) - if an idea comes up, and it’s not contrary to the mission, they’ll agree if it feels to everyone that it is at least “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try”. But innovation itself isn’t enough – they need to all be clear on how they’ll measure what happens if they make the change, and when they’ll revisit and potentially make improvements to their decision. With that deliberate intention built into all decisions, organizational debt is “paid down” sooner.

Diligence to measurement and evaluation is one way to reduce debt. Encouraging (and adopting) ideas on policy and process improvements (using advice processes, for example) is another. Whatever form it takes, debt reduction is worth the effort - freeing up energy stuck in the past to be focused on the dynamic present.

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