Chasing management debt

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Management debt is a concept we rarely hear about. Much less than its technical counterpart. Much less than all the debates around the managers role in organizations and the value they can bring. -The first time I read about this concept was in the words of Ben Horowitz.-
But whatever how they are called - manager, leader -, they handle organizational, relational and human flows that are essential in the organization and can enable great commitments if doing well … or create long-term pitfalls.

“Every seed that has been planted will become a tree. Healthy or sick.”

Many topics, at any given time, may seem insignificant or even, not be seen by the teams. But over time, especially as the company grows, every little problem, if not addressed, will lead to a higher and more costly problem to manage.
This is exactly the same way followed by the technical debt. Shortcuts that have been made to save time or just because they seem superficial at this stage, will undoubtedly lead to a major issue later.
With management debt, these issues can be as damaging as people’s disengagement, low level of commitment, resignation, or inability to build the team to reach your goals. And the enemy here is time. The longer the issue lasts, the more it takes to turn the situation around. How long does it take to move from the worst place to work to the best place to work? How long does it take to share all together the initial values lost with the time?

Let’s take a closer look at some management debt examples to well understand what we are talking about.

  • Your company is doing well, and to support your growth you are recruiting a lot of new people. But have you defined your onboarding process? Have you checked the cultural fit? Poor onboarding will lead to issues in teams building and tend to have many individualities instead of a collective organization.
  • You build your teams with senior people, A players, and give a lot of autonomy to empower the teams. But it does not give the result you expected. Do you have well-defined objectives or goals? Does everyone know what the aims of the company are and work in the same direction? A poor definition or communication about this may (will) lead over time to non-engaged teams and demotivation.
  • You are just a few people and do not waste time defining formal processes. This is fine, your communication is easy, it works well. But could it remain the same as you grow? Poorly defined processes, such as decision making or promotion, will lead to misunderstanding, deception and undoubtedly to a political environment.
  • What about a well-defined performance management process. The lack of a clear definition of expectations and frequent reviews will lead to teams working, but not especially in the desired way. And what about accountability as they don’t know what is really expected in terms of commitment or quality.

More than these organizational examples, there is also the boomerang effect of day to day decisions. The ones taken this morning or yesterday without thinking about the second effect of these decisions. The effect that comes later because the decision was made with a short-term mindset. Whether wanted or not. Let’s be more concrete:

  • You know that your teammate not longer meets expectations. But you do not take the time to define a training plan or to think with him about a possible mobility. You think you can wait, but the impact on the team are huge and increase over time (decrease of the perceived level of expectation, feeling of unfairness).
  • You are looking to expand your team for weeks and do not find anyone who meets your expectations. Finally, without even seeing it, you lower your requirement level because you really need someone. You are hiring someone who doesn’t fit with the culture or the level of expectation. The short-term could be good as you have more staff in your team, but quickly, you will see the overall team level decrease and even face some resignation.
  • You do not take time to quickly recognize the desired behaviors or even give feedback about what is good and what is bad. And you don’t understand why your teams do not perform as expected and get demotivated. Especially since you regularly increase their salaries. Rewarding only with money has only a short-term effect as money is not an intrinsic motivation factor. And without feedback or recognition, how could your teams know what is expected and what they are working for?
  • A popular project does not bring the expected value and you do not see a better future for it. But you do not want to stop it and let it goes on for moral purposes, for your teammates working hard on it. What is going to happen? This project will die slowly, your teammates will be demotivated and finally resign. Making the decision to cut the project and reallocate resources to the right projects is hard, but undoubtedly, will be profitable in a medium term vision, both for the company and for the morale of your teams.

Reduce management debt

As with the technical side, you always have some kinds of a debt. The main idea is to be aware of the areas in which you have a debt, and try to avoid developing it. You can develop some habits to handle this, to create a safer organization for the people who work there.

First of all, recognize problems and do not get rid of them. Address them! There is always a problem, visible or not. Lots of excuses, however justifiable they may be, can lead to let the problem aside (other priorities, busy days, …). But keep in mind that every problem not addressed will cost you with a higher multiple over time.

Develop a behavior of curiosity to continuously look for problems. By spending time with the teams and asking questions. By creating a trusted environment to allow your teammates to speak freely about their concerns. Identifying issues and their roots is not easy and takes great listening attitude and perseverance to get what your team members really have in mind. And do not worry about asking questions, it’s healthy and better than letting invisible issues grow.

Once the roots have been identified, solve the problem. Not alone. Put as many brains as possible into it. This will involve your team members and produce much better results. And do not wait for a big massive solution. Instead, break down the issue in small pieces and start as soon as possible. People will feel considered if things going on. Being listened and feeling that progress is being made, are key in team members’ engagement.

And another lesson from Ben Horowitz that also helps in reducing the risk of debt: make the hard choice and do not go the easy way. You are not here to make popular decisions, but to define the right strategy for the company.

Finally, as stated, whatever the name you call them, manager, leader, this is their role. Create and maintain the right ground for the teams to deliver value in a sustainable way.

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