Social Debt

This was first published on August 25th, 2015 on LinkedIn.

First, Technical Debt

Technical debt is the gap between building software quickly and building it correctly.  In the pursuit of deadlines, we write code that lacks modularity, test cases, or documentation, among other things.  Essentially, the code is less perfect than we would like it to be.

Like financial debt, sometimes technical debt can be a tool to gain access to a market quickly.  Borrow a little, and use that leverage to outpace your competitors.  But like financial debt, technical debt must be repaid: either go back and refactor code, build automated tests, and write documentation (pay back the loan fully).  Or, fight defects and accept higher costs when making modifications (interest-only payments).


Now, Social Debt

I recently read Peopleware, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, and the book describes the challenge of software development teams and projects with one idea:

“The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature.”

While considering this and other aspects of the book, I came up with the idea of “Social Debt”.

Social debt is the act of borrowing against your people in order to get a product to market quicker.  Just as technical debt can come in many forms, so can Social Debt:

  • Overtime: As DeMacro and Lister note, sustained overtime will lead to Undertime, hours spent at work but not fully working.
  • Monotony: When each day feels like Groundhog Day, “I got you babe” will slowly drive you mad.
  • Uninteresting or disreputable work: I couldn’t stand to solve problems that have easily known solutions; nor could I build software to scam others, no matter how interesting.

Now, there are always pushes to get things done when meeting a deadline or handling an outage.  The important thing to consider is the impact on people when the emergencies become continuous.  When people are always fighting fires or sprinting to the next deadline, your organization will incur social debt.


An Example

In the Spring of 2008, I was in the Army, and had recently returned from a deployment to Iraq.  In addition to the stresses of combat and being away from home, everyone had finished 14 months of 80 hour weeks or more, and many had been involuntarily kept in the Army past their original contract date (Stop-Loss).  Overall, morale was not high.  Social debt had been incurred in order to complete the mission successfully.

As always, social debt has costs that are not easily seen.  When we returned, equipment needed to be cleaned, inspected, and packed.  As any time that items must be accounted for, there’s always a couple things that cannot be found where they are expected to be.  When that happens, a group of soldiers is sent off to search the shipping containers.  Inevitably, the person who lost said item is not included in that group.

Should you pass by the motorpool when these soldiers are looking through the container, you will most likely see:

  • 2 soldiers looking for the item
  • 3 nearby smoking
  • 1 on the phone
  • and the rest standing around complaining.

Please don’t take this as a criticism of millennials or an exposé of the inefficiencies of government – this is simply the cost of social debt.


The Costs of Carrying Social Debt

When we carry technical debt, minimum payments are made when defects arise in production, and through increased costs of making changes in the future.  For social debt, we see this in lower productivity per hour (usually combined with a higher number of hours), and disengagement.  When you have incurred a large amount of social debt, employees are not going to look to solve new problems or take on more work, but rather just get through the current crisis.

How to pay off Social Debt

In your organization, you don’t want to just manage the interest on your social debt – you want to pay it off!  And maybe, just maybe, make some social investments.

  • Estimate and plan such that work is not simply a series of emergencies (unless you run an ambulance company).  Solve work/work balance, then focus on work/life balance.
  • Find opportunities for individual and team successes. At least monthly, you should be able to genuinely congratulate someone for something.
  • Embrace diversity of thought.  Each individual brings something to the team – find opportunities to let them embrace their strengths and aspirations.

Each team will have a different set of challenges, and a different set of solutions.  Simply keep in mind that while you can borrow against your people, it will always have to be paid back.  If you focus on getting the right people working on the right problems, everything will fall into place.

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