Behavioural Debt #78

By Denis O’Hora.

Denis O'Hora #78 Behavioural Debt.

I’d like you to introduce an idea I have about the costs of short-term decision-making.  I conceptualise this as Behavioural Debt and it’s based on an IT industry concept called Technical Debt.

Have you heard of Technical Debt?  No? Well I hadn’t either.  A buddy of mine who's a software engineer told me about it.  The idea behind Technical Debt is that as you produce software code, you do so under time and business pressures, with incomplete knowledge and a set of expectations that are particular to that time.  As a result, there are short-term solutions and unknown bugs in the code that will need to be resolved in the future.  Fixing these problems costs time and money, so it makes sense to set aside some time and money to deal with this “debt” in the future.

Ward Cunningham, who came up with the concept, knew that a certain amount of technical debt was required in order to get the job done.  Perfect code, like perfecting any work process, is usually too expensive. However, the cost of dealing with such issues increases as time progresses, like interest on a debt.  Unless we spend time and money reducing this debt, we end up risking a point at which the software code is unusable.

When I heard of Technical Debt, it struck a chord with me.  At work, we often generate Behavioural Debt for many of the same reasons that Technical Debt is generated.  We develop policies and procedures that are the best we can do in the time available and those policies and procedures often have to change with the changing business environment.  We are therefore always banking Behavioural Debt. 

Like Technical Debt, if we do this knowingly, then it allows to develop and test our policies and procedures.  Why spend too long developing perfect procedures that are utterly unsuitable for the people in the organization?  Instead, we need to develop agreed practices quickly and get feedback early, so that we can adjust them to work for the people who will need to work to them.  However, when Behavioural Debt builds and we don't know about it, it can bring the company to a standstill.  Everyone knows that the processes don’t work, but we feel compelled to stick with them. We are stuck paying down the interest on our Behavioural Debt.

If we think of Behavioural Debt beyond the workplace, it is a product of the commitments we make to ourselves and others.  A commitment is made when we have something to do, but we will not, cannot or should not do it right right now - we commit to doing it later.  This may sound like procrastination, but, just as in the company situation i described before, postponing tasks though such commitments is often necessary and efficient.  However, we need to commit with open eyes.

Each task we commit to generates a little behavioural debt, and we will have to work it off.  When we agree to complete tasks without considering how much time and effort it will take to complete them, we run the risk of living beyond our behavioral means.  We can only do so much, and we need to be kind to our future selves who will have to pick up the tab for our decisions in the moment.  Otherwise, we will end up missing payments on our Behavioural Debt; we end up breaking commitments to others and becoming unreliable in their eyes, because we do not have the behaviour available to fulfil our commitments.

So, next time you make a commitment, think of what you are really committing to and whether you have the behavioural resources to back it up.  And be kind to your future self - check out Dan Gilbert on your future self here: 

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© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie