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The term “technical debt” is familiar to many in the delivery world, especially those working on technology initiatives.

Ward Cunningham had originally used the well known concept of financial debt as a metaphor for the consequences of decisions made with imperfect or partial information. The term has been mistakenly used by some to refer to poor product quality resulting from teams cutting corners but that was not its original intent. For those of you who would like to hear Ward’s explanation of how he came up with it, you might want to view this YouTube video .

A few days back, when responding to a LinkedIn post about fixed and growth mindsets, and what are the prerequisites for someone to possess a growth mindset, I felt the same metaphor could be used to describe the mental models and preconceived notions which we build up over time. Purposefully restricting where we get information shouldn’t be considered “debt” so I’m focusing on misconceptions or blind spots which arise naturally.

Unlike financial debt, it is impossible to avoid knowledge debt. The human mind seeks to fill gaps in our understanding and our biases, past experience and anecdotal evidence are all leveraged to do this. What is important is whether we choose to pay down this debt.

To do so requires us to accept that we shouldn’t be certain about anything. Once we have the humility to accept that, we are likely to be more curious about views which differ from ours and more open about learning from sources outside our echo chambers.

Here’s one example from my past.

In my early childhood, I had decided that I did not like eggplant and that all dishes made from it were slimy and inedible. As such, till my twenties, I went out of my way to avoid eggplant. After I got married, my wife wanted to make an eggplant-based meal one day and I wasn’t thrilled. Knowing that she generally had good culinary tastes, I was curious as to how she could eat eggplant without gagging and decided to humor her by trying some. Sure enough, I enjoyed it. Looking back, I can regret all the missed opportunities to enjoy eggplant parmesan, grilled eggplant, eggplant lasagna and other dishes, but at least I was able to do so from that time forward.

So how are you going about working down your knowledge debt?

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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