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Technical debt has a cousin and it’s more harmful to your organization than you realize.

The shortcuts that leaders take in managing their teams can have far-reaching consequences. A decision that may seem reasonable now, can come back to bite you down the line. And just like its technical counterpart, these instances of management debt accumulate under the radar to negatively impact an organization. 

Ahead of his talk at LeadingEng Berlin, Scott Carey (SC), checked in with Daniel Korn (DK), director of engineering at Lemonade, to hear more about the ways leaders can combat management debt, namely through awareness and monitoring processes.

The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Daniel’s full talk will be delivered at LeadingEng Berlin on December 6.  

SC: What will you be speaking about at our LeadingEng event later this year? 

DK: I’ll be diving into the concept of management debt – a term that might not be as familiar as tech debt, but that is just as crucial. I’ll explore what it is and how it accumulates. I’ll also attempt to break it down into types, and most importantly, I’ll provide a suggested framework to manage and monitor it.

SC: Where did you come across the concept and how have you been building out your knowledge of management debt? 

DK: I first encountered the term “management debt” around 10 years ago, when I took my first steps into engineering management. At the time, it was a fascinating concept for me but wasn’t practical enough to fit into my day-to-day. 

Then, a few years ago, when I entered the role of director of engineering and started managing managers, I started to notice how some of my day-to-day issues fell into the definition of management debt. And at that point, I began to try and create a practical framework for myself to manage those challenges.

SC: What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about stopping management debt?

DK: The main lesson of management debt is that it builds up over time and can create serious problems if ignored. This is the reason why it’s essential to maintain awareness and have a monitoring system in place. It is also important to have a plan for reducing this debt while being cautious about accumulating new debt. 

It’s not just a managerial concern, it’s an organizational one. Many of the decisions that we make, or maybe that we’ve inherited, can affect the people on our teams. Let’s take our engineering managers as an example. Their delivery impacts people not only in their own teams, but also those in marketing and sales, or even at other organizations. If engineering is having a serious delivery problem where their teams cannot execute to target this becomes an organizational issue. 

SC: What do you hope the audience takes away from your talk?

DK: I hope the audience walks away with a solid understanding of what management debt is and the impact that it could have on the organization. I’ll offer actionable tools including a structured framework for tackling and mitigating debt, which the audience can implement in their organizations. 

Beyond the practical aspects, I also want to instill a mindset that prioritizes the management of this debt as part of an organizational culture.