Bear with me as I attempt to bring a slightly nerdy concept into relevance this week. I think you’ll see it’s a powerful idea that can help us work in better ways.

In technology there’s an idea called “technical debt,” defined in Wikipedia as “a concept in software development that 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.”

If that made your eyes glaze over, try this…

It’s often said we either “do it right, or do it again later.” This is essentially technical debt in reverse. When we choose to NOT do it right (and therefore are choosing to pay for it later) we accumulate more technical debt.

What’s become clear to me is that the idea of “technical debt” also applies to organizational culture.

You see, when it comes to the culture in our organizations, we can spend time investing in building healthy, great communication and norms now OR we can pay for not investing in these things later, but either way the “code is getting written.”

And either way, we will be dealing with the consequences.

Remember, culture is the “operating system” of an organization. (If you want more context on that idea, go here.) And so, the actual words we use to talk to each other every day in our organizations is effectively the “programming language” of our company culture.

Or if you prefer Ram Charan’s take on this (which I very much love): “Dialogue is the [fundamental] unit of work.”

The way “work” happens is via words, phrases, and sentences — transacted via emails, Slack, meetings, and hallway conversations.

In a very real way, the way we talk to each other IS the way we work.

So when we’re having a “sub-par” experience with culture, a big part of what we’re saying is that we just don’t like the way people are communicating with each other. And almost every bit of work is made of communication, right? Nearly every element in the workplace relies on communication between humans to move projects forward and get things done. In the modern organization, there is almost nothing that can happen without communication, without language, without dialogue.

But here’s the challenge…

In an organization, as with any other organism, the path of least resistance is the path of entropy — it’s that of decline and deterioration. You’ve noticed this phenomenon if you’ve ever thought to yourself how much easier it would be to use some “choice words” in a frustrating situation versus saying something nice. It’s roughly the same as what happens in our gardens; we tend to them, or we soon watch them become overgrown and bursting with weeds.

Doing it “right” is very often the more difficult path.

And so, without proper cultivation, our company culture naturally goes the way of decline, too. We don’t mean for it to happen — almost everyone I’ve met has terrifically good intentions and wants to do great work! — but the operating system always wins.

So what do we do differently?

In short, we stop feeding the technical debt in our culture. To do this, we must first recognize that this kind of debt is built in small, sometimes hard-to-see ways. And like most things related to culture, there’s a “Me” part and a “We” part — an “individual” component and a “system” component.

On the individual “Me” side, we get obsessive about all the communication we personally contribute to. For example, instead of avoiding someone, we have that difficult adult conversation. Instead of joining the office gossip, we remove ourselves from the situation. Instead of firing off that email when we get triggered, we pause and respond more thoughtfully later. Instead of looking at all the limitations in a situation, we shift our focus to the possibilities.

With every interaction, each of us — as individuals — either contribute positively to culture or we add to the debt.

On the system “We” side, we create aspirational principles that describe the behaviors we WANT to see. We outline our “Vital Behaviors” (for more on that idea, go here) in descriptive and actionable ways that clearly articulate the WAY of working that every person at the organization will pursue. We craft an “organizational Constitution” that gathers our collective agreements together in one place (we call ours a CultureBook, and you can download it here).

And we implement simple sharing practices at the local team level to encourage a virtuous spiral of collective development.

It all seems so simple, right? Well, that’s because it is — but that doesn’t mean it’s EASY. Avoiding technical debt in your culture is one of the most difficult things you can do… but it’s worth every bit of investment you put in.

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