Company Culture
7 min read

An organizational IOU: undoing debts on the road to recovery


Michael Ventura

Author, Applied Empathy

Reading Time: 7 minutes

An HVAC duct hums against an exposed brick wall. A millennial weaves past her colleagues on a scooter. The smell of free lunch wafts through the building and the tap of ping pong balls echoes in the background. You’re standing at the epicenter of the stereotypical start-up company. 

Somewhere in the open-plan labyrinth is a conference room. Inside this room, a litany of technologists, product leads, managers, and designers debate the merits of a series of decisions that will either accelerate or decelerate their product’s path to market. 

If you listen in on the conversation, before long the concept of “tech debt” will be discussed. Tech debt, or technology debt, is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution in the present instead of using a better approach that would take longer and slow the path to market – aka the long-term cost of short-term thinking. 

The pros and cons of this are oft-debated as teams work to bring their visions to reality. 

But this is not an article about tech debt.

The past few months have offered many of our organizations a newfound perspective, as workspace scenes like the one depicted above have become fodder for nostalgia. Quarantines, endless video calls, and a host of other new norms have created the opportunity to look upon our teams and our company cultures with fresh eyes. Our blindness to diversity issues or inclusion efforts is finally coming into focus. For many, the cracks and fissures in our company cultures and the back-burnering of issues have begun to reveal themselves in the form of another kind of debt accumulating interest for too long: organizational debt.

Imperfect options

As leaders, we’re often forced to act upon imperfect options. Rarely do we have the gift of two equally wonderful choices sitting before us. More often, there are trade-offs and concessions we need to consider when choosing from two less than ideal scenarios.

But what we must realize is that each of these decisions may come with different knock-on implications – things that may not be felt in the present, but over time can rattle the foundations of your business if not rectified before long.

Recently, I spoke to a client who was struggling with her team in this newfound world impacted by COVID-19. She described to me the tools and resources the company failed to put in place before the pandemic. Reflecting, she noted that had they been established earlier, they would have served to ensure that both technically and culturally, their people were set up for success. VPNs not working properly can be rectified with relative ease. Teams not working properly are often harder to correct when the necessary support structures haven’t been built. 

She relayed concerns about the inability to work in shared documents, and in asynchronous timing as a major impediment to team efficiency. Instead, she found herself on endless video calls group editing presentations that needed to get finalized. The team lacked both autonomy and coordination – a double whammy impacting their productivity. 

I asked why she thought that was the case and she said that they never really invested in building the management layer of the business. It was full of a lot of “doers” and a few decision-makers and because of this she and a select few of the other leaders needed to spend countless hours guiding and coaxing the right work product out of their team.

Sadly, this isn’t idiosyncratic to one company. Perhaps it isn’t management training but something else that is woefully missing from your organizational plan or deprioritized because of its perceived cost or time investment. Whether you know it or not, you and your team may similarly be feeling the effects of organizational debt applying undue pressure to an already taxed company culture. 

In assessing the oversights many organizations have made in the past, it would be remiss of me to not highlight the reckoning far too many businesses are presently encountering with their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts (or lack thereof). The reprioritization of DE&I in the midst of today’s social justice movement shines a light on the late and regretful miscalculation of its importance in our businesses and society at large.

This is all to say, no matter who you are and what choices you’ve made, there is likely debt that needs to be rectified in order to set your business on the right path. 

To begin that process, I encourage you to ask yourself: where have we been accruing organizational debt? What are the shortcuts or trade-offs we’ve made that have spawned consequences that sooner or later need to be resolved?

Be mindful that some of the things you may hear from your colleagues can be triggering. Everyone sees the world differently and their perspective may not be the same as your own. Create some emotional spaciousness within yourself as you go into this work and know that what others are sharing is often because they care as much as you do about the company and want to see it succeed. 

A path forward

One way you may approach this sort of organizational inquiry is through a simple four-step process called ARRA – Ask, Receive, Respond, Act.

Ask: Find the right way to survey the team about their views on organizational debt. This doesn’t need to be a long, drawn-out process. In fact, some of the best work in this arena might be as simple as asking one, highly specific question like, “What is the biggest issue our organizational culture needs to address?” Giving people the safety of anonymity when asking critical questions is a mixed bag. Some people like to ensure that people aren’t hiding behind the veil of anonymity to say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say, but in my view, this approach often produces psychological safety to give individuals the space to say what’s really on their mind unencumbered by fear of retaliation.

Receive: For those of you on the receiving end of the survey, prepare yourselves to receive the responses without judgment. It will be difficult. You’ve likely made some of the choices that people are reacting to and it may feel like a personal attack against you and your leadership. These evaluations can often lead to feelings of regret, shame, or embarrassment. That’s not an excuse to avoid them or an invitation to wait for a “better time” or when there’s “more budget available.” Resist the tendency to take these things personally and instead try to view it as an opportunity to build something better together in partnership with your team.

Respond: Let the information land and take the time to read and synthesize it into themes or topics. Don’t react. Respond. Responses are different from reactions because they provide room for contemplation and for emotions to settle. Responding to the feedback is also important because it will give you an opportunity to bring the findings back to the team to confirm and unpack them together. Use the data you gathered and share it back with the organization as a jumping-off point to discuss strategies and tactics for resolving issues and bringing your culture back into alignment.

Act: Without action, all of the above is futile. Companies who ask for feedback and then do nothing with it are bound to only acquire more organizational debt. So be mindful that once you open the discussion, you will need to be prepared to act upon the feedback and make the necessary steps to reckon with the debt that’s been accumulating. Don’t be overwhelmed. Start small if necessary. What is the first right action to take? Take it. Then move to the next one. 

No time like the present 

Being the sort of leader who’s willing to own their role and responsibility in these moments, acting with integrity, and bringing the right people to the table to find the best possible solution for paying off your organizational debt isn’t an easy job. But hey, if it was easy, you would’ve done it already. 

So whether you’re back in a post-COVID-19 conference room or still making a go of it in a remote working world, there’s no time like the present. Let’s get to work.


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