Personnel Debt

The unspoken issue of scaling

Steven Limmer
Feb 27, 2019 · 5 min read

Working in tech, you hear the phrase “technical debt” all the time. Technical debt is overhead accrued over time when building products and services that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. These can be as simple as small bugs in the systems being built, but can be as large as the need for a complete replacement of infrastructure, or complete re-write of the underlying codebase. It can be costly and time-consuming, and happens mainly because of “tactical” decisions — the need to achieve a deadline; the need to just get something out in front of customers quickly — so the best approach may have been sacrificed for something quick and dirty.

That’s technical debt, and it’s a major issue.

However, I’m going to talk about the other debt that gets accrued in companies as they scale up, and I’m calling it “personnel debt”. I refuse to use the word “resource” to describe people; “personnel” means a body of people working for an organisation.

Personnel debt is something that gets accrued over time. Organisations grow over time, and as they grow, priorities and focus changes over time. When hiring, particularly during periods of high-growth or change, the hiring needs tend to reflect the needs of the “right now”, but not the future of the organisation. All organisations aim to hire the best and brightest in their fields, of course, but of course there are many “tactical” hires over time; you take on a project with a need for a specific role to fulfill it, and then they become part of the payroll. For example, I know of many organisations that still have manual testers; useful for a period of time, but with agile working as the default, have become slowly redundant. Of course, people are open to retraining and re-roleing, and many do, but also, many don’t.

There is also the slow drift of people who achieve excellence in their initial fields, who then over time become managers; through displacement, need for change, or just because they’ve been there a long time. And in many cases, they become stuck in a rut —management training is practically non-existent. Yet, they achieve a certain status, and don’t want to leave as they may not find employment/wage at the same level elsewhere. This is when bloat in the management layer happens…

The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence.

This is a common effect of the above growth, and is painful to observe. Most managers (I include myself in this) flounder when they first become managers. For one, there’s no training, as mentioned above. Two; it’s a total mindset shift — you tend to go from being a “doer” to a manager with no visible outputs. Three, you have to work with people, and people are fucking difficult. So bearing that in mind, once you’ve promoted yourself away from what you did well, then clearly you’re going to be incompetent initially. However, some people chose to remain in this state…

Conway’s law. “organisations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organisations.”

Conway’s law is a real thing. When you have excellent organisations, you have excellent products — think Netflix, Spotify, Google. However, for all these excellent organisations, there are hundreds of thousands of mediocre/terrible organisations, producing mediocre/terrible products. Reflecting the communication structures of themselves. Units of business led by visionaries, yet implemented by middle management, who have long had their creative juices drained through “playing the game” and moving up, instead of focusing on craft. And the reason they’ve moved up is because they’ve been promoted by someone who likes what they see, and by default, is reflecting the need of the structure as it exists, rather than because of real talent and passion.

Can we fix this?

Do we fire all the managers and those “tactical” hires? Probably the most extreme version of an outcome, but in some cases, wouldn’t be the worst thing you could ever do. If the executive decision makers at ‘C’ level are abstracted from what’s happening on the ground by at least 3 levels, there’s a problem in your communication structure. And something has to give. And what’s the point in carrying overhead on people who don’t serve a useful function.

Do we bring in some transformation coaching? This is a default option in many organisations, but unfortunately when this happens, they bring in the latest and greatest in scaling frameworks (SAFe 4.5 consultants rejoice) and focus on the teams, because they are clearly the problem. SAFe is a safe option, as it creates roles for that middle management layer; release-train-engineers, product managers, architects . At least they’ll now have a purpose and role, right? (SAFe is a terrible thing, but for some, it’s a start on the path to true business transformation).

Do we really bring in some transformation coaching? Someone who will speak truth to power? This is a risky option, because they tend to shine lights in very dark corners, and force some uncomfortable truths onto decision makers. And in many cases, “fire em all” becomes a recommendation.

Do we retrain our people? There’s the old adage “if you train people, they’ll leave, but if you don’t, they’ll stay”. Retraining is a good outcome in both aspects, because you provide people with new and valuable skills, you show that you’re willing to invest in them, and will likely get a good return for this, and if they leave, they reduce headcount and overhead. Win win

In summary, there’s no easy answer to this issue. But by simply naming it, we can call it out and be wary of it. And hopefully address it before it becomes a real issue.

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