When you base your life on credit
and your loving days are done
checks you signed with love and kisses
later come back signed insufficient funds
—Funkadelic, Can You Get to That
Thanks to Ward Cunningham, the metaphor technical debt is now a well-understood concept. While you may be able to borrow time by writing quick and dirty code, you will eventually have to pay it back—with interest. Often this trade-off makes sense, but you will run into serious trouble if you fail to keep the trade-off in the front of your mind. There also exists a less well-understood parallel concept, which I will call management debt.
Like technical debt, management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence. Also like technical debt, the trade-off sometimes makes sense, but often does not. More importantly, if you incur the management debt without accounting for it, then you will eventually go management bankrupt.
Like technical debt, management debt comes in too many different forms to elaborate entirely, but a few salient examples will help explain the concept. For this post, I choose 3 of the more popular types among startups:
1. Putting two in the box
2. Over compensating a key employee, because she gets another job offer
3. No performance management or employee feedback process
What do you do when you have two outstanding employees who logically both fit in the exact same place on the organizational chart? Perhaps you have a world-class architect who is running engineering, but she does not have the experience to scale the organization to the next level. You also have an outstanding operational person who is not great technically. You want to keep both in the company, but you only have one position. So, you get the bright idea to put “two in the box” and take on a little management debt. The short-term benefits are clear: a) you keep both employees, b) you don’t have to develop either because they will theoretically help each other develop, c) you instantly close the skill set gap. Unfortunately, you will pay for those benefits with interest and at a very high interest rate.
For starters, by doing this you will make every engineer’s job more difficult. If an engineer needs a decision made, which boss should she go to? If that boss decides, will the other boss be able to override it? If it’s a complex decision that requires a meeting, does she have to schedule both heads of engineering for the meeting? Who sets the direction for the organization? Will the direction actually get set if doing so requires a series of meetings?
In addition, you have removed all accountability. If schedules slip, who is accountable? If engineering throughput becomes uncompetitive, who is responsible? If the operational head is responsible for the schedule slip and the technical head is responsible for throughput, what happens if the operational head thrashes the engineers to make the schedule and kills throughput? How would you know that she did that? The really expensive part about both of these things is that they tend to get worse over time. In the very short-term you might mitigate these effects with extra meetings or by attempting to carve up the job in a clear way. However, as things get busy the mitigation will fade and the organization will degenerate. Eventually, you’ll either make a lump sum payment by making the hard decision and putting one in the box or your engineering organization will suck forever.
An excellent engineer decides to leave the company because she gets a better offer. For various reasons, you were undercompensating her, but the offer from the other company pays more than any engineer in your company and the engineer in question is not your best engineer. Still, she is working on a critical project and you cannot afford to lose her. So you match the offer. You save the project, but you pile on the debt.
Here’s how the payment will come due. You probably think that your counteroffer was confidential because you’d sworn her to secrecy. Let me explain why it was not. She has friends in the company. When she got the offer from the other company, she consulted with her friends. One of her best friends advised her to take the offer. When she decided to stay, she had to explain to him why she disregarded his advice or lose personal credibility. So she told him and swore him to secrecy. He agreed to honor the secret, but was incensed that she had to threaten to quit in order to get a proper raise. Furthermore, he was furious that you overcompensated her. So, he told the story, but kept her name confidential to preserve the secret. And now everyone in engineering knows that the best way to get a raise is to generate an offer from another company then threaten to quit. It’s going to take awhile to pay off that debt.
Your company is now 25 people and you know that you should formalize the performance management process, but you don’t want to pay the price. You worry that doing so will make it feel like a “big company”. More so, you do not want your employees to be offended by the feedback, because you can’t afford to lose anyone right now. And people are happy, so why rock the boat? Why not take on a little management debt?
The first noticeable payments will be due when somebody performs below expectations:
CEO: “He was good when we hired him, what happened?”
Manager: “He’s not doing the things that we need him to do.”
CEO: “Did we clearly tell him that?”
Manager: “Maybe not clearly . . .”
However, the larger payment will be a silent tax. Companies execute well when everybody is on the same page and everybody is constantly improving. In a vacuum of feedback, there is almost no chance that your company will perform optimally across either dimension. Directions with no corrections will seem fuzzy and obtuse. People rarely improve weakness that they are unaware of. The ultimate price you will pay for not giving feedback: systematically crappy company performance.
Every really good, really experienced CEO that I know shares one important characteristic: they tend to opt for the hard answer to organizational issues. If faced with giving everyone the same bonus to make things easy or sharply rewarding performance and ruffling many feathers, they’ll ruffle the feathers. If given the choice of cutting a popular project today, because it’s not in the long-term plans or you’re keeping it around for morale purposes and to appear consistent, they’ll cut it today. Why? Because they’ve paid the price of management debt and they would rather not do that again.
Special thanks to my friend Joanne Bradford who came up with the idea for this post and coined the term “management debt”.