Cultural Debt

Most of us are aware of the concept of “technical debt”. “Technical debt” refers to short term compromises to speed up delivery of value that have to be paid down in the future. For me, “Technical debt” does not impact quality or value directly, but it has a huge negative impact on lead time and thus massively increases the risk of IT investments. Extending the metaphor, “Cultural Debt” is when we make short term Cultural compromises in order to speed up our Agile transformation which result in significant repayment in the future.

When considering “Cultural Debt”, you need to consider how much harder it will be to bring about change in the future to remove the debt compared to the cost now.

Two common forms of “Cultural Debt” are:

  1. Imposing Agile rather than allowing people to opt-in.
  2. Focusing on Practices and Tools exclusively and ignoring the Principles and Values.

Imposing Agile

Imposing Agile on teams and individuals is completely opposed to the principles and values of Agile. Whilst Agile Industrial Complex members might advise a client to adopt this approach, they are doing their client a major dis-service. The corner stone of Agile is motivated teams who take responsibility for their own actions and make commitments to each other and the organisation. As soon as a manager forces a team to adopt Agile, they not only disempower the team, they also take away their responsibility for their own actions. The team may confirm and adopt the practices being imposed on them but they are less likely to engage and excel in them. As Tony Grout says “Most Agile Practices are the smallest process that will show you what needs to be fixed.” Teams that are not motivated will follow the process by rote and will ignore the improvements they should be making in favour of an easy “box ticking” life. Agile requires self motivated individuals who take responsibility for their own continual improvement. Continual Improvement is less likely to occur in teams where Agile has been imposed and the team are dis-empowered.

Fundamentally the organisation suffers in the long run.

Establishing a team’s responsibility from the start is much easier than trying to get the team to take responsibility later on. The team will have established their own culture and norms and will be reluctant to take on new responsibilities and changes, especially if they have gone through a painful recent change.

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. An even more enlightened leadership might offer the choice of traditional oppressive governance and a light weight IT risk management framework.

Focusing on Practices and Tools exclusively and ignoring the Principles and Values.

The Agile Industrial Complex focus almost entirely on the implementation of new Practices and Tools. That is because it is significantly easier than helping people appreciate Agile’s Principles and Values. Teaching the Practices and Tools ignores that troublesome context stuff.

The Principles and Values are the way organisations adopt Agile in a resilient way. Ignoring the principles and values can result in cargo cult adoption that can fail catastrophically or regress when management attention shifts elsewhere. Much of the value of Agile is in the Principles and Values, even if organisations initially buy the Practices and Tools. Put another way, Organisations miss out on chance to have those super cool productive teams when they fail to acquire the Principles and Values.

However, starting with the Practices and Tools is a great way to build credibility with clients. Starting with the practices can naturally lead to introducing the Principles and Values at a later date. However the Principles and Values should be part of the discussion from the start. It is just that the organisation may not adopt the Principles and Values at the same time as the Practices and Tools.

Implementing the Practices and Tools only is Fake Agile. Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. But you should never settle for just faking it.


Starting with the Practices and Tools and then adopting the Principles and Values later is an example of Cultural Debt that might naturally be paid down provided the Principles and Values are part of the conversation from the start. Agile coaches should always model the Principles and Values otherwise they will lack credibility later if they try to implement them.

Imposing Agile on teams is an example of Cultural Debt that is very risky from the organisation’s perspective. Forcing teams to adopt Agile may make it difficult or even impossible for the teams to accept responsibility for their own actions later. If your Agile Industrial Complex partner is suggesting you impose Agile, you should show them the door and find a new partner who’s goal is your success rather than an easy life.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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