Agile Thinking

Cultural Debt: Tech Debt’s Equally Annoying Cousin

Technical debt is when so-so, not scalable code is put into use because it is “good enough” to make the software work for now. In a post for the IT Risk Manager, Chris Matts proposes a similar concept of cultural debt. This is a situation where an organization makes short-term “cultural compromises” to facilitate a faster agile transformation. In either case, the debt needs to be paid off to avoid future risks.

To the Debtors’ Prison

Matts thinks cultural debt can result from two main ways: when imposing agile without giving people a choice, and when focusing on “practices and tools” and forgetting “principles and values.” These two problems connect: Forcing people to get agile goes against the whole point of agile, namely, that it is a shift in mindset first and foremost. Without some brainwashing, it is not possible to force a mindset shift. Furthermore, teams will feel less interested in self-organizing because they will not feel very powerful in the first place. A weak, under-motivated agile team is not going to generate the desired results, so Matts offers this:

Rather than force a team to adopt Agile processes, a more enlightened leadership approach is to place constraints on the teams and let them decide how to meet them. This is what Al-Noor Ramji did at DrKW when he insisted every project should deliver value every three months. The leaders can then provide support for those who want to learn new approach (such as Agile) and tooling that might help them achieve that goal.

The principles of agile should be introduced at the same time as its processes, though Matts allows for processes to be adopted faster than principles. After all, a team can get started with agile practices and then learn their actual value as they go along; this is not a terrible thing. What is most important is that agile values are at least always part of the discussion, so that the implementation as a whole does not ring hollow. Having a bit of cultural debt of this type is not harmful. But someone still needs to keep an eye on it.

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