Faking It

The other night, on House, two of the doctors, Cameron and Foreman, were arguing about a paper in a medical journal. Both of them had written papers about the exact same case, but while Cameron was waiting for Dr. House to provide feedback, Foreman went and submitted his. Also, Foreman knew that Cameron had already written a paper, but Cameron didn’t find out about Foreman’s paper until is was published. There was lots of snarky angst throughout the episode, culminating in a tense scene in which Foreman denies that he acted in any underhanded fashion.

I wondered what other people thought about the episode, and so I popped over to TelevisionWithoutPity (curse you Tony for getting me hooked!). TelevisionWithoutPity is a nifty idea for a site: it contains episode synopses and fora where people can chat about their favourite shows. In a way, it’s like Usenet, but with advertising revenue. One of the things I found really interesting about the discussion of the episode was this: there were two clear camps about Foreman’s actions. One camp supported him. They defended his actions, saying that it was important for his career to do be aggressive about publishing articles. They talked about the pressures of the medical profession, and ultimately said, “hey, Foreman was right.”

The other camp sided with Cameron. What’s reallyinteresting is that everyone on the forum who identified themselves as medical professionals were in the Cameron camp. The people with actual, real-world experience basically said: “no, anyone who acted like Foreman would get in a lot of trouble.” Some of them told stories about similar situations that had happened at hospitals they’d worked at.

Going back and re-reading the posts, I was really struck by the fact that the pro-Foreman people sounded completely and utterly certain about how things worked in the medical field, even though none of them identified themselves as medical professionals. There were no qualifiers on their statements. Nothing like: “Well, I’m not a doctor, but I suspect it works like this…”

In a sense, their certainty was fake.

I was reminded of a situation back when I worked at a previous job. I used to be the Internet Architect for a financial institution. And one day, I was asked to sit in on a meeting about a data warehousing strategy, just in case any web questions came up. There were eight or nine of us in this meeting, but most of the conversation was between two people who were both very familiar with the data warehousing strategy. At the time, I was considerably less familiar with data warehousing, and almost all of their conversation was going over my head.

What to do? I wondered. I didn’t think that I should be driving the agenda, so I sat and tried to follow the conversation as best I could. Eventually, the two speakers finished their conversation, and it looked like the important part of the meeting was essentially over.

But, being the curious person that I am, I started asking questions about what they were saying. Within a few minutes, I was at the white board, drawing diagrams of my best understanding of what they were saying, and they’d politely correct me. “No,” they’d say, “that arrow should go over there” or “there’s an extra box for such-and-such”.

It took ten minutes or so, but eventually I got to a point where I could relate the information I’d heard to information I already knew, and I put down my whiteboard marker, so that I’d stop taking up people’s time.

At which point, a couple of other people in the meeting said, basically, “can you keep going? This extra information is really helpful.”

And I remember thinking, after the fact, that most of the people in that meeting were like me. They had no idea what was being discussed. But they weren’t saying a thing. They were quietly sitting in a meeting that they didn’t understand, and they were acting like that was completely normal. In a sense, they were faking it, too.

I’ve started to believe two things:

  1. Everyone fakes it at various times. We’re just too socialized that showing ignorance is bad. So we try to hide our ignorance.
  2. Faking it inhibits really good dialogue.

Agile methodologies value dialogue and people interaction. And it seems to me that faking it is a threat to agile methodology. So I wonder: how do people overcome their well-trained instinct to just go along with what everyone else is doing?

There’s a related social psychology concept called social loafing. It refers to the tendency of a group of people to achieve less when acting as a group than when acting as individuals. In its most ugly form, social loafing leads to a phenomenon called bystander apathy(which reminds me of something they stress when you take First Aid courses: never shout out to a crowd, “someone call an ambulance”; you should single out an individual and ask them to call an ambulance).

As agile methodology is so geared toward group behaviour, social loafing is a real threat. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article that I linked to says that there are three key things that mitigate the problem of social loafing:

  1. collaboration;
  2. content; and
  3. choice.
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