Friday, January 30, 2015

The Bane of Continuous Improvement: Bystander Effect

This last week I heard a story about bystander effect or bystander apathy.  I've heard of this concept before, but never before thought of the correlation to corporate life.

The story I heard was about Kitty Genovese.  It's really a tragic event, but the worst part is that reportedly 38 people witnessed the attack but did nothing to help.  There are other well known examples, see wikipedia,  that demonstrate that it isn't all that uncommon for people to ignore others' problems, but generally only when there are others nearby.

Research has shown that if there is only one person to witness someone's problems then they're much more likely to help.  But, the more people there are the less likely someone is to help.  Everyone assumes that someone else will do it.

So what does bystander effect have to do with continuous improvement?

Think back through your career.  Think of a time when you, or someone you know, spotted a problem.  Did you do something about it? If so, why?  If not, why not?

I'll give you a common example in the software world.  Let's say you logged into your continuous integration server and you noticed that some tests were failing.  The customers aren't complaining and you weren't the person to break them.  What would you do, especially if you were pressed for time working towards your own deadlines?

Experience has shown that most of the time they're ignored.  And once one test is failing, then other tests start to fail.  Developers notice that failing tests aren't really that important and start to be less diligent in their own tests.  (See the broken window theory)

The more problems we don't do anything about the worse off our organization will be, and indirectly ourselves.  If we're not improving we're degrading.  So how do we stop this backward slide?

Taking Action

I'm of the opinion that in order to avoid bystander effect in an organization we need to first start with ourselves.  We need to ask ourselves how am I adding to the problem?  Do I ignore problems hoping someone else is going to take care of them even when I know that no one probably will?

I brought up our failing tests in our retrospective the other day and another developer said something that gave me pause.  "You can write up tasks for those tests," he said.  As I thought about why I didn't write up a task I guess I figured that someone else would do something about it.  A simple action could have led to the desired outcome of passing tests.  Maybe not right away, but eventually.

So the answer to avoid bystander effect is simply to take action.  However small, any action is better than doing nothing and letting things fall apart.  

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