Invest in the culture you want, or get the culture you deserve. And if you think your organization doesn't have a culture, don't fool yourself--you have one--and the accumulated cultural debt will eventually come due.
For the last two years I've done quarterly workshops on interpersonal feedback with employees at a San Francisco technology company. The workshop is a half-day event, similar to the session on communication skills that I did with the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab in January, and it represents a significant commitment of company resources. I estimate that they've dedicated more than 500 person-hours to this training alone.
I end every workshop by asking each person to say something to the group, and at the conclusion of the most recent session last week a number of people referenced the company's culture and its positive effect on their work experience. They talked about the sense of trust that exists among employees, and about how they've grown from the feedback they've received from their colleagues. They also talked about how much less stressful it is to work there than at other companies and about the feeling they have of being valued by management.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that this company is some sort of magical fairy-land; it's a business, and they pay people to do their jobs like everyplace else. Nor am I suggesting that my workshops are the primary factor supporting their culture; I think I've played a helpful role, but far more important are all the interactions employees have with each other on the 361 days of the year I'm not there.
After last week's session had ended I was talking with two of the participants about their experiences at the company, and one of them, a technical manager, noted the cumulative impact of management's investments in their organizational culture using a metaphor that was new to me: "It's like the 'accumulation of technical debt' in software development. With these trainings and everything else we're doing, we're avoiding the accumulation of cultural debt."
The concept of "technical debt" was originated by Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki. Cunningham realized that compromises in the software development process have implications that build up over time, and failing to address those compromises is like steadily accumulating debt while making no payments on the principal. As Cunningham noted,
[P]eople would rush software out the door and learn things but never put that learning back into the program, and that by analogy was borrowing money thinking that you never had to pay it back. Of course, if you do that...with your credit card, eventually all your income goes to interest and your purchasing power goes to zero.
In 2007 Steve McConnell expanded on the metaphor in a post about the two primary types of technical debt:
The first kind of technical debt is the kind that is incurred unintentionally. For example, a design approach just turns out to be error-prone or a junior programmer just writes bad code. This technical debt is the non-strategic result of doing a poor job...
The second kind of technical debt is the kind that is incurred intentionally. This commonly occurs when an organization makes a conscious decision to optimize for the present rather than for the future.
McConnell's perspective on "technical debt" clarifies the concept of "cultural debt" for me, and I see so many parallels in the process of building an organizational culture. Cultural debt can be incurred unintentionally when we simply do a poor job of implementation; for example, we can deliver critical feedback to a colleague in a way that leaves them feeling defensive or demotivated. Mistakes like this have consequences, to be sure, but even failed attempts suggest that 1) we're trying, 2) we'll learn from our mistakes, and 3) we'll get it right eventually.
What's more troubling is the cultural debt that we incur intentionally when we decide to "optimize for the present rather than for the future." We hire the "B" candidate who's not a great fit because we're understaffed and we need someone now. We don't take the time to connect personally with colleagues because our to-do list is just too pressing. Our meeting agendas are always jam-packed, so it's impossible to step back and reflect on what actually happened in any given meeting. And we assume that smart people will figure out how to work together effectively, so we don't invest in soft-skills training and other culture-building efforts whose ROI is unclear at best.
But while we're taking these expedient measures the cultural debt accumulates, and eventually the bill comes due. That "B" hire isn't bad enough to fire, but they're just bad enough to slow down the rest of the team. Our colleagues are engaged and motivated when things are going well, but when the shit hits the fan we find ourselves alone. We sprint through our meeting agendas while everyone multi-tasks furiously, and at the end no one's really sure what was discussed--or why they needed to be there in the first place. And all around us well-meaning people make the same interpersonal mistakes over and over again, wasting countless hours because A) they're too blunt, and they leave a trail of hurt and angry colleagues in their wake, or B) they're too meek or indirect, and they fail to exert influence and effect real change when it's needed.
At times we have to act expediently in organizational life, just as software developers sometimes ship code they know will need to be cleaned up later. But let's be mindful of the cultural debt we're accumulating when we take these shortcuts and look for opportunities to pay it down as soon as we can.
Photo by walknboston. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.