Day 8 of 100 The Fundamental Attribution Error

May 1, 2013 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Continuing with the 100 Things You Must Know to Be Effective In Software Development.

This blog is going to be as much (or more) personal than technical.  I had already listed The Fundamental Attribution Error on this list.  But I had a great experience (and insight) today that I wanted to share.  First, a quick summary - the fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to blame the character or disposition of a person for their actions instead of recognizing that their behavior is more due to the situation that the person finds themselves in.  This is an important insight when making organizational change.  Lean is based on Edwards Deming's work, in particular his belief that most (96%) errors are due to the system people find themselves in and not due to the people themselves.  He mandates that managers improve the systems and be held accountable for that.  He accuses managers of abdicating their responsibilities when they just implore folks to do a better job when the cause of poor work is the situations the folks find themselves in.  These situations are usually outside of the control of the folks doing the work.  A simple example is testers being overloaded with work but not being in a position to determine when they are involved.

Agile has helped solve this problem by putting much of the process in the hands of the team - a good thing. But in larger organizations management's role is bigger and can't be ignored.  Understanding the real source of problems is critical. 

Anyway, I spent the day watching and participating in my son's graduation from the police academy - he is now a King County Deputy Sheriff - I am also particularly proud that he was #1 overall in his class of about 35.  Spending the day with new police and sheriffs and seeing their families, wives, girl friends, boy friends, ... really impressed on me how a few bad experiences I've had with police (personally or read about) had me just say - "oh, police are like that."  Clearly the fundamental attribution error.  First of all, it was clear that virtually all of these folks were really great, motivated people.  Now, I don't doubt that at some point some of these folks are going to do some things they shouldn't.  Don't get me wrong here, I'm not justifying that.  But every profession has folks who do some things they shouldn't.  That doesn't make that industry bad.  It also may be due to the situation folks are in.  And that's my point, if these folks are great starting out, what has some of them be not so great later?  Again, not excusing it, just saying we need to look beyond the individual and see what influences the individual. 

This all got me thinking in a couple of ways - first of all, appreciate the situation your police/deputies are in.  Second, recognize that although that is an extreme case, it's similar to folks with less dramatic jobs in your own company.  In other words, walk in their shoes before judging.  Understand that the situations are often the problem. We need to change the situations, not the people's character. Perhaps ask yourself - "what would have an intelligent, motivated person act like that?" It will almost certainly provide insights.

And, if you hadn't clicked on it before, read about The Fundamental Attribution Error (at least the first 2 paragraphs).


Al Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


In my experience, company managers and policy makers are biased toward Hawks. Hawks like to use intuitive judgment (Kahneman's System 1). These birds have the answers. They are forceful and like the 'can do' slogan. Doves, on the other hand, are seen as a weaker species. They are System 2 problem-solvers who find answers by running experiments. Doves understand the weakness of relying on intuition. These fundamental attribution errors can constrain the growth of Lean-Agile by placing consultants and employees in a defensive position with respect to incumbent Hawks. We can work on breaking this mindset by demonstrating that real value and innovation result from being both a Hawk and a Dove.

Richard Askew

This makes me think about the Dreyfus model and how people with low skill in a context need good rules. Often we don't provide them with a good set of rules to go by and then want to blame them for not knowing what to do or for having done it wrong. It becomes clearer and clearer that I need to look back at myself in these situations and ask what have I done to help them. Specifically I know that I need to work at providing better Style Guides/Practice Documentation/etc. for junior developers. Yet some people that are high on the Dreyfus model (for a context) may tend to not understand why this is even needed. I see this with some people who see themselves as "post agilists". You're there because of where you started, remember that for others.

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