Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Developing software without the Bystander Effect.

Published: 12 Sep 2012

In the late 1960s, some studies were done to attempt to piece together the Kitty Genovese murder. How, as a society, could we sit by and let a woman get killed right outside her home? While absolutely tragic, failures of all kinds are created from the same psychological reaction that can be blamed for Kitty’s death.

The most well known study that was done to explain this was the Smoke Filled Room. The study was focusing on what is known as Bystander Apathy, which showed that people will sit in a room filling with smoke as long as other people are there with them.

It amazes me how poorly we act when we think someone else will. Even if it’s just as much our responsibility as theirs. Even when self-preservation is in question. This is a very curious phenomenon, and I believe it explains some of the more bewildering things I’ve seen in creating products through the years.

Many team organization ideologies focus on small, agile and lightweight teams. It’s a good natural defense against Bystander Apathy. When a team becomes too large, the individuals start ignoring the smoke filling up the room. In fact, the more people in the group the more likely we are of not doing anything.

I am a very jittery person. I don’t believe that “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Smart is better than tough. I find a better way, and failing to find a better way I just stop. I’ve never been in a situation where flailing in any direction was, in hindsight, the right decision.

In a group, when you think about Bystander Apathy, inaction must be expected until the problems are so dire they cannot be ignored. At that point it is too late to gracefully handle the problems.

People subconsciously react to these signs of failure, but they are not discussed. In back channels and hushed whispers there may be mentions, but actions are not taken soon enough. People may even work harder, but without fixing or addressing the problems it’s a futile effort. Just like fanning the smoke away while more pours in from under the door.

Problems rarely go away on their own.

Early on in my adult life, I made a few bad decisions. Those bad decisions obviously had consequences. For a long while I tried to ignore or delay dealing with the consequences. Unsurprisingly, they added up. They got significantly harder to deal with. One day my bubble popped, but I was happy ignoring it until then.

It was a hard lesson but I came away with the simple knowledge that you can’t ignore problems. They don’t go away. You address them and, at a minimum, figure out how to mitigate the consequences.

When problems first are visible, our natural inclination is to look to the left and the right. We find comfort and solace in our peers. Often times we find it, which is the first step to our downfall. Those same peers are staring at us for comfort and solace. We are stuck in a loop.

Break the loop, talk about the fire.

It’s absolutely imperative to shirk off the bystandard effect. You are not a bystander. You are a superhero.

You can save the day, just don’t cry wolf.