People debt is like technical debt

Software development has the concept of “technical debt”: the cost of the shortcuts you have to take in the interests of time, money or available skill when you’re building a system. Essentially, your software will work for now, but it mightn’t scale to cope with new users, or be as easy to use as it should be, or solve your users’ problems properly – and the technical debt is the work you need to do to put this right.

Technical debt bites you on the ass when you need to make changes quickly (or when your world is changing quickly) because it slows you right down, and in some cases makes modifying your system all but impossible. But you can’t pay it all down – that would be a never-ending job. So good technical teams have a strategy to deal with their technical debt. This attempts to figure out which elements of the debt are going to cause issues in the future, and spends the time and money paying it down so those risks don’t actually materialise.

Unresolved people issues are exactly the same. Those two people who had to be put on different teams because they can’t work with each other? The manager who gets results by ramming decisions through? The person you promoted whose head’s only just been above water for the last six months? Your business will cope when you don’t address these problems. It will work-around the elephants in the room. There will be other more important things to do.

Until you need to change. A re-organisation; somebody else jumps ship and leaves a gap; your customers’ needs shift and you have to re-train. Then you’ll be acutely aware of this people debt – and you’ll find it slow or impossible to pay down quickly.

People debt never gets better with time. It’s toxic and corrodes your culture. Form a strategy to address it, before it bites you on the ass.

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