My hovercraft is full of eels

Responsibility Traps

by Simon Harris

I recently watched a wonderfully insightful presentation by Eric Evans on Responsibility Traps. In it he describes a number of traps into which otherwise well meaning and capable developers fall. Among others these include:

He concludes that the responsible developer often focuses her energy on solving the wrong problem, incorrectly believing it to be in the best interests of the project/company/etc. as a whole.

Since then I have subconsciously been on the lookout for other areas of life where this anti-pattern arises and to my delight (or perhaps horror), I see it everywhere.

I thought about the number of relationships that I had dragged on for much longer than was probably good for either party, where, as a result of my desire to avoid hurting anyone, both parties suffered needlessly.

I spoke with a colleague who told me how, in a recent attempt to both fulfil his unspoken promise to help a project out of trouble and preserve the reputation of his sponsors, he continued to engage with the client well beyond his own reasonable belief of success. A near stress-related break down followed shortly thereafter leading to strained relationships all ‘round.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to “rescue” a project I thought was doomed to failure, implement an unnecessarily complex story, “protect” a friend/relative/colleague/client from some bad news. In almost all cases the outcome was as bad as, if not worse than, it might have been had I confronted the reality at the outset.

Why do I fall into these traps when I believe I’m primarily motivated by of a sense of duty and responsibility? Partly I think it’s about taking a path of least resistance – It seems easier to try and press ahead to “fix” the symptom than to address the underlying cause; partly it’s about self-esteem – I’m a failure unless I can solve the problem; there’s an aspect of self-importance – few others can see what I see, so it’s up to me to do something about it. And then there’s just a plain old misguided sense of responsibility.

Many years ago, someone handed me a copy of a Garfield cartoon – ironically it was probably a technically illegal copy. The cartoon showed Garfield in bed on a Monday morning with Jon telling him to “Get out of bed Garfield!” Garfield wonders to himself “What’s my motivation?” Taken literally that doesn’t really say much but the message it has left with me is to be honest with myself about what really drives my decisions.

As a professional software developer, I believe I have a duty of care to act in the best interests of my employer even if that means delivering the news nobody wants to hear– “I think we’d be better off killing this project than sinking anymore money into it.” – and that doing so is ultimately better for me as well.

More often than not, the way a message is received has far more to do with the way in which it is delivered than with the substance of the message itself. Telling someone they’re screwed unless they do what you say probably won’t get you anywhere; suggesting humbly that they are spending double what they could be paying if all they are after is someone who’ll unquestioningly implement whatever whacky ideas they present, has historically worked out much better for me.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, more important than acting responsibly is to act ethically – fairly and honestly. If you act ethically you will necessarily end up acting responsibly but not necessarily the other way ‘round. Acting ethically takes courage, determination and optimism and that’s bloody hard work™. I encourage you to be brave, take a risk, act ethically and do the right thing.