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Cultural Debt

Seems all my writing (other than my poetry) is directed at us at Bridge. The main motivation for this is my great fear of something I call Cultural Debt. Cultural Debt is the most dangerous kind of debt an organization or a team can accumulate. Some form of “debt” is hard to avoid when scaling anything. All debt is similar in that they achieve present goals or requirements at the expense of the future. Financial Debt is the most obvious, which comes from using up more financial resources than the organization has. This is solved by paying off the debt with money. Technological Debt is another one that has gained prominence through the rise of tech companies and platforms. Technological Debt accumulates when future technological capacity is sacrificed (knowingly or unknowingly) for current requirements (usually for speed and cost issues), and is solved through additional rework down the road. But Cultural Debt is by far the worst. Cultural Debt accumulates when we sacrifice stated principles for in addressing present day concerns, usually for the sake of growth, speed, and convenience.

If Financial Debt is measured in money and Technological Debt in terms of development time, Cultural Debt, to me at least, is measured in stories. What stories are my team members telling themselves and others about our company? If there are more stories of me or anyone in the organization sacrificing our core purpose and principles for present performance than there are of us standing by core purpose and principles even when it costs us, we will increase Cultural Debt. You can’t spend your way or develop your way out of Cultural Debt. In most cases, Cultural Debt is never addressed. Those organizations that do attempt to fix their cultures understand that it requires overhauling the management team. You cannot fix the culture of an organization with the character (or lack of character) of those who allowed it to become that way.

Once Upon a Dark Time…

I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure we make and share the right stories. We make the right stories by living up to our core principle of “In a world of OR look for AND”, and we need to share these stories to show other show they can also be AND people, people of possibilities, of connections, and of solutions.

I would like it, in this time of flux, of uncertainty, a natural disaster (we just had a volcano), a pandemic (Corona Virus), personal disaster (we’ve had a few deaths in our Bridge family in the last 6 months), and all on top of the stress of being in a fast-growing start-up, that make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime backdrop to write an amazing story for ourselves, a story of understanding, yes, but also a story of courage, of hunger, of diligence, of mastery, and of service. While most people are reacting, I want us to remain purposeful. Purpose is a North Star when changing times cloud our view.

It is our purpose, even in this time, to grow as an organization. Let me tell you how exactly we are going to do that. As a team, we will focus on:

1. Grow Your Roots (Don’t rush to branch out)

A tree doesn’t only grow its trunks and branches. It also grows its roots. Sometimes we think that growth can only come “branching out”, doing more, adding more clients, adding more services, going regional, and other obvious metrics of  growth. I want us to focus on depth.

Growing Roots, in our context, means strengthening the fundamentals of each of our departments, including how we serve existing clients, how we cultivate existing team members, and how we develop existing technology. While most people will be paralyzed by this period, you be different. Ask yourself, “What fundamental area can I improve?”

2. Grow Your Partnerships (Don’t be distracted by competition)

Some of our most beneficial relationships have been with “competitors”. Our reasoning has always been simple: in an underserved market, we’re better of segmenting and cooperation, and at some point merging, than fighting. Sadly, finding like-minded companies has been difficult, but the logic still works. It makes no sense to spend more resources to acquire the same value when partnerships can capture more value and divide up the cost. Less resources go to jockeying for position and more goes to providing customer value. The best thing about difficult times is that it reveals who is really out there for your success. When people start withholding or attacking during crisis, you realize who is a partner. You be different. Make sure Customers, Team Members, and Suppliers know that Bridge is a partner even in tough times.

3. Grow Your Focus (Concentrate instead of expand)

This is going to be a difficult year. All of us will have to tighten our belts in some way. By focusing more, removing parts of our operation that are non-essential, we make sure that valuable and scarce resources go to keeping our essentials healthy. But the bigger threat to our focus isn’t more work, less resources, nor external threats. The biggest threat to our focus is the non-stop and unprocessed flow of information coming at us from all sorts of sources. I, personally, can’t keep up with my email and messaging apps, and neither can I follow the streaming news from politics, to climate, to health, economy. If you add all my “connections” on personal and professional networks, it’s easy for me to drown. I’m sure much of the stress, physical and mental issues, and relationship issues are caused by our physical, mental, and social systems being overwhelmed by too much. You be different. Choose to focus on the timeless things about yourself and your work. Don’t focus on things like diversity. Focus on being understanding, kind, and in making those around you better. Don’t focus on political correctness. Focus on honesty, humility, apologizing when wrong, forgiving when right, and sincerity. Don’t focus on what you don’t have. Focus on who you are becoming. Don’t focus on the threat. Focus on your response.

The End…

I don’t know how this will all end. I’m no prophet. Who really knows what tomorrow will bring? Will crisis lead to poverty? Will poverty lead to extremism? Will extremism lead to war? Will war lead to a nuclear holocaust? No idea. Will we be able to pay our bills? Will we be able to visit loved ones? How will our business be affected? Will we be able to care for our sick? Will we be able to afford college? Will we be able to get married? Will we be able to protect our children? I really don’t know.

This I know, tomorrow we will wake-up early and face the day, whatever that day may be, and we will do what we can to grow our roots, grow our partnerships, and grow our. focus. Be cautious but don’t fearful. Be prudent but don’t’ be paralyzed. Be informed and turn that information into insight. We don’t need to know how everything will conclude. We don’t need the assurance of prediction. After all, our beautiful stories don’t come from promised happy endings but from courageously and creatively responding to life’s call.

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