institutional debt and conceptual thinking

“In a so-called information society, minds are not only the most important economic asset — companies with minds make money; companies with money and no minds lose the money — it’s the same thing in everything. The networks are not programmed by technology; technological tools are programmed by minds. So the human consciousness [is the source], because everything now depends on our ability to generate knowledge and process information in every domain and activity. Knowledge and information are cognitive qualities from the human mind. Yes, human minds usually are connected to bodies, which means that you have to take into consideration the overall system of human existence, social services support, etc. But fundamentally, the human mind has always been, but more than ever now, the source of wealth, power, and control over everything.”

Manuel Castells Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley


I get annoyed by telling people to get out of comfort zones and I get even more annoyed when someone says it with regard to conceptual thinking.

First. I bet 80%, maybe 90%, of everything you would like an employee to improve upon & learn is within their comfort zone. Let’s stop telling people they have to be uncomfortable. They can be comfortable AND learn shit.

Second. Almost all concepts have one foot in the present and one foot in the future (or within an emerging opportunity). That’s the strength of a concept. It leverages existing resources and institutional wisdom to gain velocity within newly existing opportunities (the best concepts are actually a version of Loewy’s ‘optimal newness’).


Institutions, themselves, have a version of a comfort zone. It is what I call “Institutional Debt” (this is the organizational version of what software industry calls “technical debt” where suboptimal software is created by less-than-well-crafted coding added to software infrastructure not created to optimize the addons).

** note: Tech debt is something accrued when code is written in a suboptimal way. The term originated with programmer Ward Cunningham in a 1992 report

Because of this ‘debt’ Institutions struggle to “see forward.” In other words, one part of their institutional debt is a disproportional blindness to emergent aspects and the other part is a blindered vision on current situation. The organizational has to be organized to constantly augment its situational awareness so that institutional wisdom is not a constraint and incoming wisdom increases the value of the existing parameters. Another part of institutional debt is actually found in the systems themselves and the last institutional debt is how the people OF the institution think about the systems themselves.

As Peter Drucker said, “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”

Conceptual thinking, or iterative strategic thinking, reduces institutional debt.

Institutional debt has obvious problems but the one least discussed is how they create a version of  “wicked problems.”  This is grounded in the truth the more you ignore it, the more it builds up and becomes impossible to ignore. More and more a business which is less focused on emergent opportunities will build debt in outdated ideas, misguided thinking on what’s important and processes which have seen better days (once worked but are having diminishing positive returns).

I believe saying “change is hard” is misguided. Change is actually easy – once you see a reason to change and the benefit of the change.

We fool ourselves into believing change is hard because we confuse it with risk. Much of business change has to do with shedding institutional debt BUT the people actually do not see it as debt – but wisdom.

And this is where Conceptual thinking shines.

There is a massive value in working with other thinkers, who do not think the same you do or you may not even know particularly well, focused on developing concepts against a common vision. To be honest, I cannot figure out of this is an argument for, or against, remote working. What I do know is that people who have a common vision, a common desire and a common view on what progress looks like, will naturally cluster. It is quite possible its easier in physical proximity but that’s a different issue for a different day. All I know is that Conceptual thinking, and actually using concepts to mutual benefit of the business, levels up everyone and everything.

Why do I feel so confident saying that? Conceptual thinking is the anti-matter to Institutional debt matter.

I will end with two quotes:

“Augmentation is fundamentally a matter of organization”


“Past wisdom must not be a constraint.”

Institutional debt is fundamentally a matter of organization, therefore, augmenting existing wisdom and thinking is a matter of organization. I hesitate to call this “culture” because I believe it is more attitude and intentions. If an organization clearly states its intentions, and attitudinally believe the organization should be continuously making progress against those intentions, conceptual thinking is the pathway forward for a Conceptual Age Organization seeking to insure it sheds its Institutional debt.

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Written by Bruce