What is cognitive debt?

It’s your enemy.

Cognitive debt is the sum total investment in technical skills accumulated over years that now impedes your organization’s ability to flow with external changes in technology. You’ve got a sunk cost and it is determining your future decisions.

How can you spot it?

Are you organized by technology stacks, vendor platforms or applications? Are your people primarily identified by their technology skills? For example, “full-stack Java engineers.” Is your strategic sourcing organization sending RFP’s for staff augmentation? Not good.

When technical skills are primary to an engineer’s role, they will always default to this technical skill. This is a powerful obstacle to innovation and adaptation.

For example, instead of devising the best engineering solution to a business problem, engineers try to use the tools they know to solve problems. While this may work for large teams of engineers working in a static environment, it does not adapt to changes in external technology availability. Moving forward,  organizations need technology agnosticism to compete.


Technology agnostic software engineers are far better equipped to pivot whenever needed to use the best technology to solve a problem. They have the ability to pivot and flow with changes in the external environment. This capability is a game-changer in world with artificial intelligence.

 What are the consequences of cognitive debt?

  1. You cannot assign your best engineers to work on the most important problems. 
  2. High dependence on outsourcers needed to acquire commodity technical skills which does next to nothing to drive innovation.
  3. Slow response to technology change reflects your lack of internal ability to flow with the introduction of new technologies 
  4. Keeping pace with competitors : New technology offerings will continue to flow into the marketplace of technical capabilities. The pace of this flow is accelerating. Your company’s future may depend on how and when your decide to integrate these new technologies. 


There’s also a personal impact on software engineers.

In a time when retaining your top engineering talent matters most, cognitive debt creates an unhealthy environment:

  1. Your Productivity Suffers when your best people find themselves boxed into rigid roles that stifle innovation
  2. Regrettable turnover increases: Switching employers is often the only path forward for an engineer to break free from their technology-specific role.
  3. Innovative Stagnation: Excessive cognitive load can stifle creativity and innovation, as mental resources are diverted from creative thinking to managing existing complexities.


Strategies to Manage Down Cognitive Debt

Stop aligning resources to problems based on technical skills. Problem solving, innovation and value-generation competencies should be the primary determining factor when allocating resources. Build this into your organization and into your culture and you will have a durable, leverageable capability that enables you better adapt to a changing technology environment.


  • Problem Solving Prioritization: Enable people to solve problems without limit to their technical profile. Excellent software engineers can quickly acquire new skills.
  • Enable flow: Don’t build software engineers – grow them instead. Give them access to the technology they need and a clear understanding of the business problem to be solved. They will fill in the gap with imagination and innovation.
  • Continuous Learning and Adaptation: Staying updated on industry trends and continuously adapting decision-making strategies can help managers and engineers make more informed decisions, reducing the uncertainty and second-guessing.
  • Technological Tools and Automation: Automate business processes that can survive engagement with the vagaries of the real world.



A sophisticated approach to reducing the burden of cognitive debt is exactly what firms need to succeed when the primary value drivers are innovation and problem-solving. Like technology debt, cognitive debt will not evaporate overnight, and it takes time to implement this kind of change. The question is not if this is necessary, but how and when you can accomplish it. Good luck!