Systems Thinking

Human beings have evolved a very strong association that cause and effect are simple and linear; that cause and effect are local in space and local in time. We are not good at seeing the non-linear effects of our actions; the effects over distance and especially over time. Here's something a friend emailed me:

Last week I found that the guys had not checked in a big chunk of library code. It was in the place where common tool-chains were getting invoked, so no one noticed. They changed something and I was seeing sudden breakages even with older versions of the code which was working. They didn't even bother to put it into the version control. I just couldn't believe, people can work this way. I immediately put it into the svn.

Here's what I replied...

Why do you think they hadn't put it in svn? Because at some level they associate the pain of putting it into svn as being greater than the pain of not putting it into svn plus living in a messy kitchen! And who can blame them when helpful people like yourself come along and clean up their mess! They are probably hardly even consciously aware that have the option of putting it into svn themselves. If they haven't put it into svn for N weeks then that is the behaviour that has become their norm. And things that don't change are not seen or thought about. That's abstraction! You are part of the vicious cycle! You are helping to perpetuate their behaviour. You are part of the system!

A more congruent approach would have been to sit next to them and talk them through what they needed to do to tidy up the mess. You absolutely mustn't do any part of it for them. Only if they actually do it themselves will they have a chance of not repeating the situation. They have to type the keystrokes at the keyboard. Remember, it is trivial for you to do it, but for them it will mean working through some level of associated pain. That is not their "fault". They are simply, in this case, less experienced than you. You simply sit next to them and calmly, patiently, ever so patiently, talk them through it in a non threatening, non blaming way.