Lately, I’m increasingly hear folks reference the idea of organizational debt. This is the organizational sibling of technical debt, and represents things like biased interview processes and inequitable compensation mechanisms. These are systemic problems, which are preventing your organization from reaching its potential. Like technical debt, these risks linger because they are never the most pressing problem. Until that one fateful moment when they are.
Within organizational debt, there is a volatile subset most likely to come abruptly due, and I call that subset organizational risk. Some good examples might be a toxic team culture, a toilsome fire drill, or a struggling leader.
These problems bubble up from your peers, skip-level 1:1s and organizational health surveys. If you care and are listening, these are hard to miss. But they are slow to fix. And, oh, do they accumulate. The larger and older your organization is, the more you’ll find perched on your capable shoulders.
How you respond to here is, in my opinion, the core challenge of leading a large organization. How do you continue to remain emotionally engaged with the challenges faced by folks you’re responsible to help, when their problem is low in your problems queue? In that moment, do you shrug off the responsibility, either by changing roles or picking powerlessness? Hide in indifference? Be so hard on yourself that you collapse inwards?
I’ve tried all of those! They weren’t very satisfying.
What I’ve found most successful is identifying a few areas to improve, ensure you’re making progress on those, and give yourself permission to do the rest poorly. Work with your manager to write this up as an explicit plan and agree on what reasonable progress looks like. They’re still stored with your other bags of risk and responsibility, but you’ve agreed on expectations.
Now you have a set of organizational risks that you’re pretty confident will get fixed, and then you have all the others. Known problems, likely to go sideways, that you don’t believe you’re able to address quickly. What do you do about those?
I like to keep them close.
Typically my organizational philosophy is to stabilize team-by-team and organization-by-organization. Ensuring any given area is well on the path to health before moving my focus. I try not to push risks into teams that are functioning well. You do need to delegate some risks, but generally I think it’s best to only delegate solvable risk. If something simply isn’t likely to go well, I think it’s best to hold the bag yourself. You may be the best suited to manage the risk, but you’re almost certainly the best positioned to take responsibility.
As an organizational leader, you’ll always have a portfolio of risk, and you’ll always be doing very badly at some things that are important to you. That’s not only okay, it’s unavoidable.