Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa

Marcin (@mfloryan) asked me a while ago if I could ‘balance’ (or complement) my posts about Lemon Agile Consultants and the problems of having managers. He suggested another post exploring how some developers seem unwilling to adopt or engage with Agile development methods, or appear disinterested in the whole idea of improvement – either of themselves or the working practices in which they participate.

The Peg

I’ve since been struggling to find a ‘peg’ upon which to hang this idea, and thus, hopefully, make it interesting and relevant. So here it is: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. My mistake – it’s all my fault.

Assumptions, Assumptions

It seems to me that implicit in the general question of “why do some developers seem uninterested in Agile – or the wider issues of improvement” lies the assumption that anyone in their right mind should be so interested.

Most of the folks that I know, talk with regularly, identify with are so interested.

Thus a lack of interest seems an aberration, a deviation from the norm. I seem to have succumbed to the fundamental attribution error – attributing the behaviour of others (the disinterested developers) to dispositional factors. Factors such as; they can’t be bothered, they’re unimaginative, they have poor a sense of social responsibility, they lack a sense of teamsmanship, and so on.

Are We Learning Yet?

How about we learn from the fundamental attribution error and admit the possibility of situational factors playing the key role? I’m not trying to deny the widely-reported observation that some developers do behave as if they have little interest in raising their personal skills, or the capabilities of their group, team or organisation. But how about considering why this should appear so?


Number one on my list of possible reasons why, is that no one ever told them that it’s even possible to spend time on, invest effort in, self-improvement and/or group improvement. (The A.R.C. coaching mnemonic reminds us that Awareness is at the root of commitment to e.g. action). I mean, it’s not like this possibility is taught in schools or Universities, is it? The capacity for “divergent thinking” is actively degraded by our educational systems, according to @SirKenRobinson. Nor is the possibility for intentional improvement taught or experienced in the workplace, either, by and large.

Absent any such information or awareness, is it reasonable to expect folks to have some kind of natural, inborn predisposition towards self-improvement or group improvement? In the general case, I think not. (I’d be delighted if anyone can share any research or findings on the presence or absence of such a predisposition).

Other Factors

And then there’s a whole bunch of other situational factors which can come into play in any given set of circumstances. Can you think of some that might apply in your context, in your team or organisation? (If yes, might you like to share them, here?) .

So yes, I’ve fallen foul of an unwitting assumption about these developers’ dispositions. But maybe, just maybe you could find it in your heart to pray for me? And maybe have a chat with them about their perspectives – on the issues of both self-improvement, and improvement more generally?

Thanks. :}

– Bob

Further Reading

The Three Ingredients of Commitment (Agile Studio Blog post)
Coaching For Performance ~ Sir John Whitmore

  1. I disagree with the notion that self-improvement needs to be taught. I think we are all born with a curious nature and a intrinsic ability to learn – improvement (self or otherwise) should therefore be a natural consequence. The problem is that our learning institutions and work environments do little to foster these natural tendencies – in fact most of the time they do the reverse. Learned helplessness is a term that springs to mind to describes a lot of the behaviour I have seen in the workplace and I think many just think their time and energy is better spent elsewhere.

    Sometimes though I wonder who is more right-minded, those of us who bang their heads against a work environments/systems we are woefully unempowered to change or those who opt to focus on where they have more autonomy such as their family life, spiritual growth, personal pursuits, etc. Personally I can’t separate such things but outside of certain circles I find myself in the minority and the world around me reflects this.

    In recent years I have concluded (not before time), that I need to stop trying to figure out how to change the world and simply seek out the parts of the world that are already to my liking and hope that others, upon seeing my success with like-minded individuals, will also gravitate that way as well.

    • Hi Kris,

      Thanks for your comment. I was not trying to say that self-improvement needs to be taught. Rather, that if folks have the opportunity to learn that the possibility / idea exists, then they might be better placed to decide if it’s for them or not. Can you help me by suggesting how I might edit this post to make this distinction clearer? Thanks!

      – Bob

      • I think the problem is not that they don’t understand there is the possibility or idea – it’s that they don’t believe that is a risk worth taking – perhaps because of a lack of trust, a safe environment to make mistakes or having a choice? I think many maintain the status quo thinking – better the devil you know…..

      • Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree, then. I have seen many folks who, once introduced to the possibility of (self, group) improvement, have at least (for the first time) considered the option.

        – Bob

    • Marcin Floryan said:

      I agree with Kris – observing what my kids have been doing in the last four years leaves me with no doubt whatsoever that it’s a natural state for a human being to want to learn, improve, seek new experiences and gain abilities. At least in so much as to add to their experience of social interaction.
      Plus it is very easy to reinforce that drive to self-improvement through frequent and generous appreciations. The way we treat appreciation towards kids when they learn is then in stark contrast to what we do later on especially in organisation. We no longer recognise the effort but instead we only judge the outcomes and even when they are favourable we sometimes consider some form of generic, meaningless appreciation (“Well done!”, “Good job”, “Keep it up”, “Nice one”)

  2. I can think of one occasion where a developer absolutely refused to be part of our agile adoption. He quickly left us but in the many discussions we had about it, it became clear that he considered there was no need for him to improve. It appeared that pride was leading him to believe that any suggestions that his skills were less than perfect were insulting. I’d hazard a guess that an attitude like this is down to a tough upbringing where showing weakness was punished rather than a result of our education system. I believe he is now a consultant 😉

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I think we can only guess at the situational factors pertaining in any specific case. Likely the people themselves don’t know for sure what factors contributed to their aversion.

      – Bob

  3. You pose a great question, Bob. One of the situational factors that I have encountered is a deep-seated fear that there is something scary to know. It is like the dark shadow in my wood shed which, rather than turn the light on and discover it’s only the cat, causes me to think it could actually be the possum that is going to maul me as it tries to climb up me in terror….so I back away and come back the next day when it’s light. I have met a few people who, after some time, admit that they dismissed earlier opportunities for development because they had some un-nameable fear that they might meet something, also un-nameable and unknown, about themselves which would overwhelm them. One quote: “I was scared that I might start crying and then I would just never stop.”

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