Cultural debt

Cultural debt and “assholism” are the deadliest poisons existing in companies. It's up to you to fix them.

Hi, my name is Andre. Welcome to my Newsletter, a (sometimes) weekly column on product management to get products from zero-to-one. If you’re a builder looking for harmony among (product) chaos, subscribe to get the latest Articles and PodDrops.

Cultural debt and “assholism” are the deadliest poisons existing in companies. Both are invisible. For this post I am going to focus on the first.

The objective of my short essay is not to provide an antidote as there’s no quick recipe for this. As it is cultural, it is unique to each company. The objective of this writing is to bring awareness. Make it less invisible, make it more addressable.

But first…

Let me briefly demonstrate the base of my analogy: technical debt.

As per adaptation of wikipedia, technical debt “reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer”. Read“easy (limited) solution” as fancy wording for “sh*tty decision”. Most of these sh*tty decisions are a consequence of 1) insufficient analysis of the problem; 2)rushed definition of the solution; 3) lack of time granted for the execution; 4) inexperience from the executor; 5) inexperience from the decision maker; 6) incompetence from someone or everyone.

On paying this debt, “[…]If technical debt is not repaid, it can accumulate ‘interest’, making it harder to implement changes later on. […] these uncompleted changes incur interest on top of interest, making it cumbersome to build a project. Unaddressed technical debt increases software entropy.”. Let’s highlight the words interestchanges and entropy and save them for later.

But where’s the connection between technical debt and culture?

Do you know the popular saying “People don’t quit companies, they quit managers”?

As a product manager, I find this insufficient. It doesn’t explain why. Why do people quit managers? Why do people quit other people and not companies, products or code? And what gets them to such state?

One answer is cultural debt. You can define it, word by word, as “the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer”. But instead of code, it’s people.

Where in technical debt this implied cost of rework is on the code, in cultural debt this cost is in the attitudes. Where in technical debt the choice of easy and limited solutions are around architecture, code standards and frameworks, in cultural debt is on decisions, communication and processes.

Every time there is insufficient analysis of what’s blocking someone; every time communication is rushed; every time people don’t have enough space to think, are unattended or undervalued; every time someone is over-demanding, aggressive or disrespectful; every time a decision maker doesn’t have the resources or knowledge to decide properly; every time someone f*cks up and this is either ignored or overlooked; the debt builds up. You don’t see it, but it builds up.

Ok people are pissed, so what?

As with technical debt, culture debt also “accumulates interest”. Interest, which in a slow and silent fashion, fuels the destruction of how people feel inside the company, how people contribute to the company, how people see the company. Compounded by “interest on top of interest”, it becomes cumbersome to build a team, to build trust, to build momentum. When unaddressed, this debt leads to entropy; not software entropy, but commitment entropy.

Ok, I’ll just repay the debt…

Now, tech debt is repayable, but the longer we accepted it, the deeper it became, and the harder it’ll be to clean up. And as code is a connected system, so becomes technical debt, spreading across different pieces of the project. Catching and paying it early enough might mean a temporary deceleration, building new stuff while fixing some other. More common is fully stopping progress to address the problem. And sometimes, more often than not, paying the debt is more expensive than simply starting fresh, so you build a product from scratch.

Cultural debt is exactly the same.

The longer you disregard what causes it to build, or the people who’ve accumulated it until the present moment, the more entrenched it becomes. As with code, people are equally connected, spreading and compounding this “poison”. It becomes a pandemic problem. Catching it early enough, you can isolate and try to eliminate before it spreads while still pushing the team forward. More often, you need to stop everything because it’s becoming apparent like a loud silence. This is when the feedback sessions are voluntarily requested, when the offsites described as moments to “build trust within the team” (spoiler: they don’t). You can easily guess that the entropy is here, when contribution freezes. That is the true “interest” of cultural debt.

And sometimes this debt is un-payable, it’s too expensive both for the person, and for the company. And, like code, you need to build from scratch. Except instead of code, it’s people.

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