Cultural Debt

You can revert code, but you can’t revert culture.

Technical debt comes in when you choose a limited, easy solution and then have to rework it down the line. It’s the result of prioritizing speedy delivery over perfect code.

There are consequences to this, but most teams accept the fact that some technical debt will always occur. And they’re okay with it because they know they’ll end up fixing whatever comprises they may have made.

Of course, you actually have to fix those issues. If you don’t, your debt will incur interest and you’ll pay for it 10x eventually.

Cultural debt is much more dangerous than technical debt. Once you hire the wrong people, it’s very hard to “fix”.

For example, you can’t just reverse a lack of diversity by hiring more people from underrepresented groups if 95% of your org is already just white males. New candidates won’t want to join and they’ll have no reason to - you’re going to have to start from scratch and think about what inclusion really means to you.

The same goes with setting your values. It’s a really vague word, right? Your “values” is normally just a bullshit term that companies put on their career pages - very few are actually intentional about defining the type of workplace they want to build.

By the time you’ve scaled, though, and you have hundreds of employees across different global offices, you’re going to have a hard time enabling the sort of principles that you want to see. You can’t just implement a culture of “open feedback” if for the past 2 years you’ve been doing no employee surveys or sharing employees’ anonymous feedback with everyone.

Cultural debt is especially dangerous when your managers don’t have an understanding of what type of organization you are trying to build. Managers have a multiplier effect on the organization - it’s a 1 to N dynamic.

And when you don’t invest in your management, that’s when you really see the consequences of weak culture. Your managers are going to be recruiting, managing, and leading. They will be the fundamental reason behind cultural debt spreading (or not spreading if you’ve properly invested in your people).

Most times, cultural debt occurs because people think that it’s at odds with actually getting shit done. They dismiss it as unimportant and what happens is that your people don’t get the time to grow and learn. After all, they’re too busy in their day to day.

If only solving these underlying issues were as simple as a git command. But it’s not because people are complex and messy.

And the best thing you can do to minimize cultural debt is to be very intentional about the organization you want to build right from the start.


I had an awesome conversation with Anthony Chen, Employee #1 at Flexport, about this topic and he introduced me to this concept.

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