Thursday, September 12, 2013

OK, I admit it! I was wrong!

This morning I saw this tweet:
I had a similar thought earlier this week at work. As many others, I've always got a long To Do list and it never seems to get any shorter. As result, I try to prioritize as I go and sometimes I don't make the wisest choices and some very important tasks fall way behind schedule (even though they remain at the top of my To Do list for weeks!)  This week one such task culminated in my manager coming over looking for the reasons why I hadn't completed the work yet, as the issue is now highly visible. I went into a half hour rant explaining the various reasons and excuses why I couldn't finish the task. That night, in bed (probably around 3am, the time when I usually reflect on this type of thing), it occurred to me that I was being completely dishonest to myself and my manager. The simple reason I have not yet finished that task, is because I find it boring and I will always pick a more interesting task that I can justify to myself as being more "urgent" at the time. The next morning I talked to my manager and admitted: "The simple answer is: I found it boring and I made some judgement errors in my prioritization and procrastinated too long." It feels good to take responsibility for your mistakes.

This ability we have to find excuses to justify our decisions even when we're wrong, is called Cognitive Dissonance. Check out the book called "Mistakes were made (But not by me)". It covers this topic quite well, I recommend it.

As developers, we want to prove ourselves. We want to be right about our opinions and we want others to see our point of view. It's difficult to be completely unbiased when there is any room for ambiguity in a debate.

I'm sometimes lucky to catch and recognize the feeling of the cognitive dissonance as it sets in, and that makes it easier to control it. It helps a little bit just be aware that we're all susceptible to biases and cognitive dissonance, but I doubt anyone can completely eliminate it.

For many years I've been keen to try doing regular Code Reviews at work, but I'm "worried" that my team members may feel insulted when I "criticize" their code. At the same time, I feel like I can handle the criticism myself. Does that mean I'm mature enough not to experience cognitive dissonance when faced with disagreement, or is that a type of bias in itself to think that I'm somehow less susceptible to the emotional effects of criticism and conflict? (By the way, no one should feel offended when their code is criticized - you are not your code).

As software developers, I think we are often too scared of making any mistakes. Especially "debilitatingly-perfectionist" and High C developers like myself. We want certainty and facts. We want to stick with the tools we know. We get religious about our tools (languages, text editors, brands of keyboards, etc) and we can't understand when others can't see that they're wrong and we're right.

We have to learn to embrace risk, taking chances, making mistakes, and admitting our mistakes. The Agile mindset is to embrace failure (fail early). Learn to make better mistakes in the future. Making mistakes is the key to making progress, as Daniel C. Dennett says in his book "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking".

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