Why do people happily accept poor quality?

At the weekend whilst lounging in a hot bath, after an excellent dinner, I came across this striking article about kakonomics by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian’s magazine.

It sought to explain why so much of life just sucks. Given the extremely comfortable circumstances in which I was reading his article I wasn’t entirely convinced that life does suck all that badly. However, I certainly was receptive to the deeper meaning; that we are often motivated by laziness and the desire for an easy, unchallenging life.

People enter into a sly conspiracy in which they happily trade low quality results, whilst indulging in high quality, but bogus, rhetoric for the record.

Burkeman’s article was based on the work of the Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi. See these articles from her blog; “Kakonomics, or the strange preference for Low-quality outcomes” and “The Kakonomics of Facebook”.

I had no difficulty accepting the gulf between grubby reality and the bogus rhetoric of high flying ideals. That has always been a feature of my working life.

Were people really happy with that gulf? It is of course counter-intuitive. I was sceptical. However, the more I thought about it the more willing I was to accept Origgi’s insights.

Transformation Programmes that transform nothing

I have often been puzzled at how some organisations have been seemingly trapped in damaging, dysfunctional behaviour, with no apparent willingness to break out and transform themselves. They have certainly been too willing to launch Transformation Programmes (note the deliberately disrespectful and cynical capital letters).

These programmes have rarely been designed to truly transform anything. They have simply rearranged anything and everything capable of being rearranged. The real work has carried on in spite of the transformation.

Once I really did see one of those programmes produce genuine and exciting benefits. That those benefits were irrelevant and accidental by-products of the Programme was revealed shortly before it was wound down.

A review of what had been achieved swept the benefits away in an act of casual destruction that effectively reinstated the pre-transformation status quo, but with a superficially different structure and youthful new faces added to the lower layers of the management team.

Was kakonomics at work there? Did the consultants deliver some low grade, but expensive, rubbish, which the management were happy to take on board because it didn’t challenge them to change either their behaviour or the organisation’s culture?

The last minute review ensured that management could carry on as before, but with the enhanced prestige of having “done something” about the abysmal quality and late delivery of IT applications.

Kakonomics and traditional development practices?

I have worked on many developments when you could sense the relief at progress meetings when someone confessed that they’d had problems and would deliver late. By doing so they let the others off the hook and no-one would be required to deliver on time.

That is consistent with kakonomics, but it can also be attributed to a natural human desire not to be the first to admit failure, or an equally natural desire for easier targets. By their actions do people really solicit and encourage poor quality and performance?

The possibility that Origgi might be right seemed stronger when I reflected on occasions when people had stood up and not only insisted on high quality outcomes, but delivered them. Were they lauded and rewarded as heroes?

Well, no. Not consistently.

I remember a friend once saying, shortly before he handed in his notice, that it made no sense to be a high performer at the company where we worked.

The difference in reward was negligible and insufficient to justify the extra effort. Worse, slovenly and inefficient work had its own reward in the form of generous, overtime without scrutiny of what was achieved. Sloppy cowboys could earn more than diligent craftsmen.

The users were untroubled. Everything was late and poor quality. However, the IT people made perfect scapegoats. Requirements could therefore be late, badly defined, and always open to change. IT would take the blame without complaint, largely because they knew it was expected of them, and in the full knowledge that the gap between aspiration and reality would be tolerated and leave them with a substantial comfort zone.

Both there and elsewhere rewards have gone more consistently to those who play the game rather than those who seek and even deliver genuine improvement.

Following practices, such as the Waterfall, V Model and Structured Methods, which are inefficient and ineffective but were widely regarded as “standard” or “best practice” for years reinforced kakonomic exchanges of low quality throughout the IT profession.

If people follow them and the results are bad than they can always pretend that they tried to do it right, but were unlucky. No-one is really to blame, or accountable, and we can all carry on as before. The rhetoric is impeccably high quality. The reality is garbage.

If people deliver something special and high quality then they are probably iconoclasts or rebels who have rejected the methods that would have ensured low quality failure. They have therefore rejected the cosy consensus of the status quo and set a challenge to the organisation.

Whereas those who fail do so conventionally, and can therefore be excused as unlucky but dependable, the rebels are seen as difficult, spiky individuals. Their success is a one off, which can’t offer a pattern, being dependent on individual skill rather than repeatable process.

There’s a blog to be written about whether CMMI is misused so that it encourages kakonomic exchanges by implicitly valuing repeatable, predictable failure above erratic, but sometimes brilliant individualism.

Anyway, the rebels have breached the subliminal contract of the kakonomic exchange, leaving their colleagues distinctly uncomfortable. No-one would admit to the real reason for that discomfort, and they happily ascribe it to concern about the rebels’ cavalier style, which creates friction and harms morale. They are “difficult”, “not team players”.

The conventional team players glide up the organisation, and if the rebels are wise they head for an organisation where sparks are welcomed, rather than feared.

Is Agile a panacea?

I’m not sure there’s much for proponents of Agile to be complacent about here. If Agile is badly implemented then I’d expect exactly the same reinforcement of bad practice. The trendier Agile becomes, the greater is the danger that it will be adopted for the bogus, high quality rhetoric.

Perhaps Agile’s greatest strength in the long run is its adaptability and flexibility, rather than any particular technique. Any shrewd practitioner should surely realise that complacency is deadly to Agile, and would be attuned to the dangers of kakonomic exchanges, even if the term and the theory meant nothing to them. In principle, I’d have thought that such exchanges could occur anywhere.

What about testers?

I think that kakonomics can explain some of the daft, damaging and dysfunctional behaviour that happens in organisations. It might explain why people persist in doing things that are entirely inconsistent with their supposed objectives, and why they will do so in the sure knowledge that their behaviour will not be challenged.

Gloria Origgi is rightly critical of the damage this all does. Her analysis is not just an amusing reflection on the vagaries of life.

She explains that the reason “it is a form of collective insanity so difficult to eradicate, is that each low-quality exchange is a local equilibrium in which both parties are satisfied, but each of these exchanges erodes the overall system in the long run”.

Testing should be a comfortable home for those who are happy with creating and suffering a little discomfort! It should be our job not to tell people what they want to hear, or to go through the motions, or to follow the process blindly, but to shine a light on what’s really there.

In doing so it helps to think about why people behave as they do, and to understand why good people do bad things.

I don’t think it always applies, and it’s not a magical insight that explains everything, but maybe kakonomics is one of those things that can help us understand a little better, and to explain just why we are seeing damaging behaviour. It might not make us popular, but unless the organisation is dying there should always be a place for unpopular, truthful insights about why we get poor quality.

One of the things about testing that I like is that it is a profession that has genuine respect for the teller of those unpopular truths!