What is Human Debt ?
“HumanDebt™ is the equivalent to Technical Debt but for people. All of the initiatives, the projects, the intentions we (the organisation) had to do better by our employees, but we abandoned halfway. All of the missed opportunities to make their lives and their work easier and more joyful. All of the empty talk on equality, respect, lack of blame, courage and trust. All of the missing focus on empowered teams and servant leadership. All of the lack of preoccupation or resources for building better team dynamics. All of the toxic culture created by these. That’s Human Debt.” – Duena Blomstrom – InfoQ
Tech Debt Vs Human Debt
Both technical debt and human debt are concepts that represent accumulated costs and challenges that arise from taking shortcuts or not addressing issues head-on. While technical debt is a familiar term in the software development world, human debt, as introduced by Duena Blomstrom, focuses on the people aspect of teams and organizations.
- Definition: Technical debt refers to the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing a quicker yet suboptimal solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.
- Origins: It can arise from various sources, including rushed code, lack of documentation, outdated technologies, or not adhering to best coding practices.
- Impact: Over time, technical debt can slow down development processes, make the codebase harder to maintain, and increase the risk of bugs or system failures.
- Definition: Human debt encapsulates the organizational and cultural challenges that hinder optimal performance and productivity in teams.
- Origins: It’s created when organizations fail to address people-related issues, such as lack of respect, poor compensation, absence of psychological safety, or mismanagement.
- Impact: Just as technical debt affects software quality and delivery timelines, human debt affects team morale, productivity, and overall organizational health.
- Accumulation Over Time:
- Technical Debt: Accumulates when teams prioritize speed over quality, often due to external pressures or tight deadlines. It’s like paying interest on a loan – the longer you leave it, the more it costs.
- Human Debt: Builds up when teams or organizations neglect the well-being and professional growth of their members. It’s the interest paid on neglecting team dynamics and individual needs.
- Technical Debt: Often documented in code comments, backlog items, or documentation. Tools and metrics (like code complexity measurements) can help identify it.
- Human Debt: More intangible and harder to quantify. It might manifest as increased turnover, decreased morale, or reduced productivity but requires keen observation and open communication to identify.
- Technical Debt: Addressed by refactoring code, updating documentation, or investing in better tools and technologies.
- Human Debt: Repaid by fostering a culture of psychological safety, investing in team-building, and ensuring fair treatment and opportunities for all team members.
- Consequences of Ignoring:
- Technical Debt: Leads to a more complex codebase, longer development cycles, and increased risk of defects.
- Human Debt: Results in decreased team morale, higher sickness rates, higher turnover rates, reduced productivity, and potential burnout.
While technical debt and human debt originate from different aspects of the software development process, they share similarities in their accumulation, impact, and the necessity for timely resolution. For organizations to thrive, it’s crucial to address both with equal importance. Balancing the technical with the human aspect ensures not only a robust and efficient codebase but also a motivated and productive team
Recent articles (1,2,3,4) have shown that you can’t measure developer productivity and the best measure of “Value” is “Output”. By reducing the Human Debt, we can ensure that teams are empowered and enabled to remove blockers as and when they see them. “Human Debt” can be measured and addressed and in the coming days and weeks we at Tech Led Culture will be making more intro videos and documentation for the use of the People Not Tech Dashboard. In any case, even if you believe you have the highest of performing teams, this tool will still help reduce the Human Debt. So hop on over to Tech Led Culture and start working on it now.