Solve your Organisational Debt, the Boy Scout Method

Technical debt
There are 3 fundamental ways to deal with Technical Debt:

  1. Stop everything for a period of time and just tackle the technical debt. Examples are “technical debt” sprints. Or in worst cases, a legacy system is so bad, the only sensible thing to do is just to rebuild the damn thing and replace it, with all the additional problems of phasing in and out.
  2. Take a certain percentage of time/effort every time period and deal with a piece of technical debt. That usually means have a full overview and then chop it up in pieces and deal with it very week. Sometimes you see even a separate backlog for technical debt… Don’t do that by the way, technical debt is part of your product, so it goes on the normal list
  3. The Boy Scout Method: when you deal with a piece of your product/code, leave it better than you found it. That means when touching code for a new solution, you also look at the code and see what you can improve.

Big chance you are dealing with your technical debt in a combination of at least 1 and 2 and sometimes 3. If possible, my advice is do 3 and not 2, but at least make a conscious decision about it. 

Organisational debt
In analogy, your organisations probably also needs to deal with Organisational Debt. Just as in technical debt, you make all kind of decisions that in the ideal situation you would not have had (to make) and your organisation is not at it’s peak happiness or performance.

The same three strategies
If the analogy applies to the problem, that of technical or organisational debt, does it extend to the solution strategies as well? Let’s try

  1. You stop everything (meaning organisational change) for a period of time and prepare a re-organisation of the team/department. Worst case you need to re-invent everything and a full company wide re-organisation is needed. 
  2. You make a “backlog” of everything that needs change and you hire a “transformation manager” to lead a change program where every team spends a bit of time every period on changing something. When one thing is done, go on to the next.
  3. The Boy Scout Method. You as a leader know that a lot needs improvement, but you don’t organise a program. With every change, (new team member, letting someone go, new system, new tool new process, new crisis, etc.) you change what you find and deal with the organisational debt related to that part of your organisation. No big bangs, no separate change programs, just improve what you find.

Note: when dealing with organisational debt, you will always find more than you’re bargained for. I use to call them pandora’s boxes where everything that comes out is in the form of a skeleton in the closet. That also means that every transformation plan needs immediate adjustments as you go along.

My opinion

  • As a leader you try to make sure that option 1 is never needed. I know that sometimes it cannot be avoided due to external unforeseen circumstances. And even then, were they really unforeseen? Or didn’t you do your due diligence to make sure risks could have been prevented? For everything that IS under your control, you do your best to not go into option 1.
  • It could be that your problems are so big that option 2 comes to mind. But starting a transformation program takes time and energy on its own and sometimes there’s not time or energy. Of course getting a quick overview of what’s going on and then thinking of a quick strategy is good, but that should not take more than a few days. The best thing to do is to start changing and adapt as you go.
  • I prefer option 3 of course. Dealing with organisational debt always brings new unseen problems, pandora’s boxes and skeletons out of closets you didn’t know even existed. That means the only way is to make use of a change and improve on the organisational debt it touches. Never waste a good “crisis”.

Oh. And never forget, organisational debt as with technical debt is payed with interest!