David Pratten is passionate about leading IT-related change projects for social good.
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The case against empathy

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Why this Yale psychologist thinks you should be compassionate, not empathetic.

Who can be against empathy? If our moral intuitions align on anything, is it not on the idea that empathy for other human beings is a good thing? What harm could come from identifying with the thoughts and feelings of our fellow creatures?

According to Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, most of us are completely wrong about empathy. The author of a new book titled Against Empathy, Bloom uses clinical studies and simple logic to argue that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor guide for moral reasoning. Worse, to the extent that individuals and societies make ethical judgments on the basis of empathy, they become less sensitive to the suffering of greater and greater numbers of people.

“I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.” Such is the plea that Bloom makes in the opening pages of the book. What follows is a lucidly argued tract about the hazards of good intentions.

I sat down with Bloom to talk about his case against empathy. To be perfectly transparent, I read Bloom’s book — and entered into this conversation — with a fair degree of skepticism. I’ve long believed empathy to be the basis for human solidarity (for reasons I explain below). So if he’s right, then I’ve been wrong for virtually all of my life.

After reading his book and engaging him in this conversation, I think he’s (mostly) right.

Sean Illing

How do you define empathy? And how is it distinct from, say, compassion or sympathy?

Paul Bloom

It’s a great question because a lot of people freak out when they see my title. I’ve come to realize that people mean different things by empathy. Some people take empathy to mean everything good or moral, or to be kind in some general sense. I’m not against that. There’s another sense of empathy which is narrower and which has to do with understanding other people. And that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I think that understanding people is important, but it’s not necessarily a force for good. It can be a force for evil as well.

By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain — I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings.

A lot of people think this is merely a verbal distinction, that it doesn’t matter that much. But actually there’s a lot of evidence in my book that empathy and compassion activate different parts of the brain. But more importantly, they have different consequences. If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better.

Sean Illing

I take all the points you just made, but empathy still strikes me as a largely positive — or useful — emotion. One could argue that having empathy actually opens the door to more compassion.

Paul Bloom

My beef is with empathy in particular, with its role in decision making. Empathy has certain design features that do make it positive in certain restricted circumstances. If you and I are the only people on earth and you’re in pain and I can help you and make your pain go away, and I feel empathy toward you and so I make your life better, empathy has done something good. But the real world is nowhere near as simple. Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.

I’m likely to feel empathy toward you, a handsome white guy, but somebody who is repulsive or frightening I don’t feel empathy for. I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language. This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level, but we know that it happens. There’s dozens, probably hundreds, of laboratory experiments looking at empathy and they find that empathy is as biased as can be.

The second problem is the innumeracy. Empathy zooms me in on one but it doesn’t attend to the difference between one and 100 or one and 1,000. It’s because of empathy we often care more about a single person than 100 people or 1,000 people, or we care more about an attractive white girl who went missing than we do a 1,000 starving children who don’t look we do or live where we don’t live.

So it might feel good but empathy often leads us to make stupid and unethical decisions.

Sean Illing

Is empathy necessarily a spotlight? Does it have to be focused on one or two people at a time? Is that part of the structure of empathy or is that just the most common manifestation?

Paul Bloom

I think it’s part of what empathy is. Empathy as we’re talking about it is, “I put myself in your shoes.” So how many people can you do that with? Well maybe I could do that with you and some other guy at the same time. You’re feeling different things and I kind of got them both in my head. Can I do it for 10 or 12 or a 100 people? No. Maybe an almighty god could do that, could empathize with every living being. But typically, we zoom in on one.

And so it’s different from morality more generally. When I make a moral judgment, I can take into account, if I do this, 10 people will suffer but a thousand people will benefit. And with health care, gun control, or something like that, you deal with numbers.

But empathy, by its very nature, is like a spotlight.

Sean Illing

So it’s your view that empathy is not only a poor guide for moral reasoning; it actually makes people — and the world — worse?

Paul Bloom

I think empathy is a great for all sorts of things. It’s a wonderful source of pleasure, for instance. The joy of fiction would disappear if we couldn’t, on some level, empathize with the characters. A lot of our intimacy would fade. I think empathy is central to sex. It’s great for all sorts of things.

In the moral domain, however, empathy leads us astray. We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivating by compassion and care for others.

Sean Illing

Can you give an example of empathy gone wrong in everyday life?

Paul Bloom

I’ll give a controversial one and then a less controversial one. The controversial one has to do with the role of empathy in our criminal justice system, specifically victim statements. In many states, not all, there are victim statements, and these victim statements allow people talk about what happened to them and what it was like when their family member died or when they were assaulted; these often determine sentencing.

I could not imagine a better recipe for bias and unfair sentencing decisions than this. If the victim is an articulate, attractive, white woman, it’s going to be so much more powerful than if the victim is a sullen, African-American man who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. You suddenly turn the deep questions of how to punish criminals into a question of how much do I feel for this person in front of me? So the bias would be incredibly powerful. So that’s case one.

Case two is about Donald Trump. Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims was often framed, particularly early in his campaign, in terms of the suffering of people. He would actually tell these stories. In his rallies, he would tell stories of victims of rape and victims of shooting. He would tell stories of people who lost their jobs. And he was appealing to the empathy of supporters, whose concerns extended mostly to their own tribe.

Three hundred years ago, Adam Smith noted that when you feel empathy for someone who’s been abused or assaulted, it translates into anger and hatred toward those who’ve done the abuse. And I think we see that in the real world all the time. Whenever somebody wants you to kick a bunch of people out of your country or go to war, they’ll tell you a really sad story of some poor person who looks like you and got victimized in some way. Sometimes the story is false, sometimes it’s true, but it is a case in which empathy really goes wrong.

Sean Illing

I find your broad arguments about empathy persuasive, but I think your critique doesn’t hold as well for interpersonal relationships or parent-child dynamics. On some level, aren’t we obliged to care more about the people that we love or the people we call friends? And if that’s true, doesn’t that require something like empathy?

Paul Bloom

This is a great question. I have a whole chapter where I struggle with this. A lot of my book is like, “this is the way it is, man.” But I have a chapter on intimate relationships where I struggle exactly with these questions. It goes off in two directions. So one direction is, “empathy is biased, it plays favorites,” but there are some biases that don’t seem bad. I love my kids a lot more than I love you and I’m not ashamed of that. I don’t think I’m making a moral mistake. And I don’t think it’s a mistake to care more about my friends and my family than about strangers.

I think I’m making a mistake if I care about white people more than dark-skinned people. But friends and family? That seems right. In that sense, the bias of empathy isn’t such a problem. But I think the bias that that reflects is just a more general bias. If you took away empathy from my brain, I’d still love my kids. Because every other emotion is going to go in that direction. In that case, I think empathy’s bias per se isn’t a problem.

The other strand of your question is, the examples we’ve been giving so far have been about policy issues — going to war and victim statements. What about dealing with your kids, with your wife, with your friends? Don’t you want to be empathic to them? And I think the answer to that is mixed. I think the answer is often no.

Suppose you come to me and you’re freaked out, you’re anxious. Do you really want me to get anxious too? Do you want me to empathize with your anxiety, not just understand but feel it too? Presumably not. You want me to be calm. If you’re depressed, you don’t want me to sink into depression. Then you’ve got two problems instead of just one. You want me to sort of be uplifting, cheer you up, put things in perspective.

I think there’s a case for empathy, particularly with positive emotions. If we’re friends and something great has happened to you, you may want me to share your joy, not just be happy that things are well with you but actually share your positive feelings. I see nothing wrong with that.

Sean Illing

You made an interesting distinction there between feeling and understanding, and you alluded to this earlier as well. I wonder if you could unpack that just a bit. Are you saying that to be empathetic is to feel what someone is feeling, and not merely to understand it or relate to it in some way?

Paul Bloom

It’s actually critical to my argument that those are two separate things. Everybody agrees that to be a good person you have to understand other people. You can’t buy someone a birthday present unless you understand them on some level. And you can’t make a kid happy if you don’t understand her. Now as we said in the beginning, understanding is also necessary if you want to ruin somebody’s life, if you want to seduce them or con them or torture them. But understanding still seems to be a necessary condition for doing good. So if it turns out understanding and feeling are essentially entangled, then I can’t argue against empathy. But they aren’t entangled. You can easily find dissociations.

One such disassociation is the competent psychopath. So some psychopaths are not as impressive as you might think. They’re just kind of screwed up people. But some psychopaths are really good with other people. They’re really good with other people because they understand them. They know what you want. They know what you like. They know you better than you know yourself, but they don’t give a shit. They could cause you a lot of pain and not blink.

Sean Illing

Do you see any social utility at all to empathy?

Paul Bloom

I think it leads us to poor moral decisions, but it’s often what people want. There are a lot of cases where people want another person to feel what they feel. Some cases are cases of moral persuasion where I want you to persuade you to help me and to get you to do that I need to get you to feel what I feel. My kid’s in the hospital. I need money for an operation. How would you feel? I try to motivate that as part of persuasion.

Sean Illing

I take your point that empathy is often tribalistic, but must it be it that way or is that what it is for most people most of the time? Consider a Buddhist monk or someone who meditates regularly on compassion. Empathy in these cases is not directed at particular people. I’d argue that empathy, exercised in this way, is an orientation, not an emotion directed at someone or something.

Paul Bloom

Those are two different questions. The monk stuff is interesting. I talk about monks and meditation and Buddhism in my book. They really caution you about empathy. They say to get what you’re talking about, to get where you are, you have to jettison empathy and feel love and compassion, loving kindness. But don’t try to crawl into people’s heads. That will exhaust you. That will cause all sorts of problems.

There’s some evidence that meditative practice and mindfulness meditation makes you into a sweeter person. There’s no definitive evidence of this, but the argument is that mediation makes you more compassionate by diminishing your empathy, so you can help without feeling suffering.

Here’s an analogy I give: Isn’t it unfortunate that people overwhelmingly like delicious and fatty foods? Why can’t they enjoy eating protein powder or spinach day and night? Can you say that it’s impossible to have a person who hates hot fudge sundaes and steaks and enjoys chewing protein powder? Is it impossible to have somebody who isn’t sexually aroused by attractive young people but is instead sexually aroused by virtuous people? Is it impossible there are people who are only angry at global warming but if you chopped off their arm, they wouldn’t mind at all? I don’t know. I don’t think we’re such creatures.

I got into a discussion with a British academic over the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He says the problem is not enough empathy. I said the problem is too much empathy. He says, but can’t you imagine a person, an Israeli, who feels as much empathy for the Palestinians as he does for his own family? I could imagine it. It’s just not how we typically tend to work.

Sean Illing

I’ve always felt that identification with another’s suffering was the key impetus for human solidarity, and that empathy is a gateway to recognizing the commonality of experience. If we want to make the critical shift from solipsism to collective consciousness, don’t we need something like empathy?

Paul Bloom

I wouldn’t say with confidence that that’s wrong. In some ways, to the extent that empathy can do it, it’s the effect, not the cause. That is, if you put yourself in somebody’s shoes — a person in Africa, a trans individual, a nonhuman, someone who you otherwise wouldn’t relate to, you already have to acknowledge them as a person. It’s not like empathy is this magical thing.

Empathy is a psychological process of imagination. Basically you’re choosing to make that imaginative leap. But that’s the moral choice. Empathy is just the one way you enact it. But then the question is, do you need to enact it? I think about rights revolutions in our times. The dramatic change in attitudes toward gay people and, more recently, the dramatic change in attitudes towards trans people.

I’m not convinced that everybody’s who’s changed or everybody’s who acknowledges these rights, these groups who are otherwise included, does so because they imagine what it’s like. I imagine what it’s like to be a man who wants to have sex with another man and can’t marry. I imagine what it’s like to be somebody with a penis who identifies herself as a woman. Maybe I do that. Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just say, I hear your argument about human rights, and there’s no reason to deprive them.

Sean Illing

Perhaps it’s better to think of empathy as an instrument, not a virtue. It can be used for good or ill, depending on the person in whom it’s exercised. Con men, as you say, are exceedingly empathic, which is why they’re so effective. Someone like the Dalai Lama is similarly empathic, only his empathy is put to much better ends.

Paul Bloom

I think when it comes to moral reasoning, empathy is just a bad idea. It just throws in bias and innumeracy and confusion. But yes, when it comes to moral motivation, empathy can be used as a tool. If I want to get you to help the baby, I can say, look at the baby’s family, I could do that. If I want you to lynch African Americans in the South, I can say, look at these white women who’ve been raped, feel their pain, let’s go! It is a tool.

My point is that there are better and more reliable tools.

Sean Illing

I’ve argued elsewhere that privilege has a way of blinding the privileged, and that that is a big reason why people fail to notice the role of luck in their own life and, more importantly, the role of misfortune in the lives of others. Obviously the political implications of this are terrible. I’ve always understood this to be an argument in defense of empathy.

Am I mistaken?

Paul Bloom

I’ve never thought of it that way. I actually think attempts at empathy might actually make things worse. A friend of mine, another white guy born into privilege, once said very honestly, “I don’t really understand why poor people would do this or do that. If I were in their shoes, I would do this and that and so on.”

You could argue that he’s just not empathizing strong enough; if he fully appreciated what it’s like to lack the right education and so on, perhaps then he’d understand. I wonder if an appreciation of contingency, of blind luck, isn’t something you get through empathy but through a broader understanding.

I’m not entirely sure, but it’s a great question.

Sean Illing

I don’t share this view, but there some who think that you place too much faith in pure reason as a guide to morality. At some point, don’t you have to smuggle value or emotion into this? You can easily reason your way into eugenics or some other repugnant worldview, after all.

Paul Bloom

I make a distinction. I think reason is how we come to conclusions and, more specifically, how we achieve certain ends. What ends you seek can be derived from reason based on some other goals, but they’re ultimately not determined by reason. I could say, I want to make the world a better place and here’s how we should do it. And you could challenge me and say, why do you want to make the world a better place. I’m just going to say, I just do. So reason has to end somewhere.

I’m most interested in cases where rational people share the same goals and then the question is roughly how to get there. And there I think reason is better than emotions.

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11 hours ago
Sydney, Australia
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Leaders, stop being so nice all the time.

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“Being nice” can be a crutch to avoid hard choices and uncomfortable conversations. Don’t fall into this trap.

Leaders, stop being so nice all the time.

I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. But when it comes to leadership, it’s true: Prioritizing “being nice” keeps us from being good leaders.

Now I’m not advocating for us to be mean. Disrespectful or dismissive leaders help no one. Rather, I’m calling for us as leaders to loosen our grip on “being nice.” To stop wanting our team to like us all the time. To let go of the expectation that every single interaction with our team should feel good.

Truth is, our team isn’t going to like us all the time. Our team isn’t going to feel good all the time. And trying to be nice to everyone all the time isn’t going to change that. Nor is it actually helpful for your team.

When we’re preoccupied with seeming popular instead of fair, when we optimize for pleasant conversations instead of honest ones — we hurt our teams.

I was reminded of this most recently while I was reading The Watercooler, our online community with almost 1,000 leaders. One manager revealed he was facing this exact dilemma. He was seen as “The Nice Guy” in his company, always complementary, never critical. As a result, he was struggling how to start giving his team difficult feedback — and his team was floundering.

He’s not the only one.

Have you ever found yourself in one of these situations?

  • You avoided giving tough feedback to a coworker… and now the person has made even bigger mistakes than you previously imagined.
  • You didn’t tell someone that you disagreed with them… and now you have to figure out how to course-correct without blindsiding the person.
  • You postponed firing someone… and now have to do damage control for the low morale they infused throughout the team.
  • You said something was “great!” even though it actually wasn’t… and now you have to fix the level of quality for what was produced.

Many of us focus on “being nice” as a leader more than we should. And we pay a price for it.

Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg, emphasized this point to me, in a recent interview. He warned that when you’re concerned with being nice all the time, “there’s a level of toxic culture that develops that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.”

Prioritizing “nice” as a leader is an easy trap to fall into. Being nice fits into our desire for belonging and companionship as humans. We’re social creatures. We want to be liked. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that.

But “being nice” becomes problematic when it becomes your rudder as a leader. It leads you astray. You lose sight of your purpose as a leader: To help your team accomplish a specific mission. Your barometer for success as a leader morphs from “Are we accomplishing our mission?” into “What does the team thinks of me?

Over time, “being nice” becomes your crutch. It’s a convenient rationalization to avoid hard decisions, uncomfortable conversations, and controversial actions. It’s easier to “be nice” than it is to have tell someone to their face that they’re rubbing a client or colleague the wrong way.

Ultimately, being nice as a leader is selfish. It doesn’t serve the team. It serves your ego. The team is looking to you to help them achieve a goal. And instead, you’re looking to have your decisions, actions, and yourself perceived as positive by them.

A leader is the only person’s whose sole job is help a team achieve the outcome they want to achieve. When you care about “being nice,” you’re essentially saying, “The needs of my team as a whole don’t matter as much as their perception of me as an individual.”

Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent.

Or even better, we can seek to be nice and honest, nice and rigorous, nice and consistent. One of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, discusses how being nice and being honest are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. The best leaders embrace this duality.

Let’s just stop being so damn focused on being only nice.

P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Leaders, stop being so nice all the time. was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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12 hours ago
Sydney, Australia
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Project Management of Product Development

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There's a popular fallacy in the agile community of products over projects. This, of course, is based on the lack of knowledge of Managerial Finance, Systems Engineering and Product Development principles and processes.

Here's a chart from an upcoming meeting on the integration of Systems Engineering with Program Management.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.44.03 AM

The Systems Engineering of Products and the management of the processes that produce those products are tightly connected. The primary roles of Program or Project Management in the development of Products are on the right. On the left are the primary roles of the Product Development Process

These roles are inseperable, support each other and both are needed.

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1 day ago
Sydney, Australia
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MIT scientists crack the case of breaking spaghetti in two

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The trick to breaking spaghetti in half is to bend and twist, new MIT study says. (credit: Tom Smith / EyeEm: Getty Images)

Pasta purists insist on plonking dry spaghetti into the boiling pot whole, but should you rebel against convention and try to break the strands in half, you'll probably end up with a mess of scattered pieces.

Now, two MIT mathematicians have figured out the trick to breaking spaghetti strands neatly in two: add a little twist as you bend. They outlined their findings in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This isn't the first time scientists have been fascinated by the physics of breaking spaghetti. The ever-curious Richard Feynman famously spent hours in his kitchen one night in a failed attempt to successfully break spaghetti strands neatly in half. It should have worked, he reasoned, because the strand snaps when the curvature becomes too great, and once that happens, the energy release should reduce the curvature. The spaghetti should straighten out and not break any further. But no matter how hard he tried, the spaghetti would break in three or more pieces.

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5 days ago
Sydney, Australia
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CFO Series: An Executive View of Lean and Agile IT

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Over the last two decades, the IT profession has developed new ways of working that are intended to deliver better business value more quickly and at lower risk. Or as Jonathan Smart of Barclay’s likes to say, “Better, Faster, Safer, Happier.”[1]There are buzzwords associated with these techniques, of course, as with everything in IT—in this case, Agile, Lean, and DevOps are the terms to know. Unfortunately, these techniques are often presented as IT-focused, with unclear benefits for the enterprise. They even seem to bring with them a danger that they might undermine the CFO’s or CEO’s ability to oversee IT-related initiatives.

They do nothing of the sort. Agile, Lean, and DevOps are ways of delivering business value, streamlining digital delivery, fostering innovation, and making the enterprise nimbler. I believe that they are the best thing that has happened to CFOs since the invention of the spreadsheet, helping them to increase returns, oversee investments, implement controls, gain transparency, provide better data to the enterprise, and, of course, manage costs.


Lean IT delivery is based on the same concepts as Lean Manufacturing and Lean Six Sigma, all imported from the Toyota Production System that pioneered them. The general idea of Lean is to eliminate waste by concentrating on reducing lead times. When an enterprise adopts a Lean point of view, it maps out the processes it uses to deliver value and examines each step to find waste that makes the process take longer than necessary. By eliminating each type of waste, a business can shorten its lead times and reduce its costs.

IT delivery is amenable to a Lean approach, although IT must be thought of as a product development process rather than a manufacturing process (that is, a process that is different every time it is performed). For this reason, six sigma techniques, which try to reduce variance, are not generally applicable. But as with other business processes, delivering IT capabilities involves a series of steps, each of which often contains waste. The typical sources of waste in an IT process correspond fairly closely to those in a manufacturing process. Authors Mary and Tom Poppendieck have identified them as partially done work, extra processes, extra features, task switching, waiting, motion, and defects.[2]

So, why is it so important to eliminate waste and shorten lead times in IT delivery? One reason is to reduce time-to-market, of course; or for internal use capabilities, the time until value can be harvested from an investment. Another reason is that speed helps make sure IT capabilities are as effective as possible. IT teams can now quickly deliver minimal viable products to users, check to make sure they are accomplishing what they should, and then continue adding features or make changes. Speed creates business agility. Because capabilities are constantly being finished, IT is able to pivot and work on other things that become more important without wasting any of their previous work. And finally, speed reduces risk, both because unforeseen events can be quickly addressed and because the delivery risk of IT capabilities is reduced.

The value stream for delivering an IT capability is different in every organization, but typically it includes steps like this: the business need is recognized and expressed, requirements are written, a plan is created based on the requirements, a business plan is prepared, a governance process acts on the business plan, resources are acquired, software is developed, software is tested, security is verified, software is deployed, users are trained, and the capability is launched. This is a long process—and it can hide a great deal of waste. Much of the process (and the potential for waste) is outside the direct control of the IT organization, or it is at the interface between it and the rest of the business. A careful look at the processes informed by Lean software delivery techniques can make a substantial difference in business outcomes.


Agile IT delivery is based on a simple principle: in a complex environment (which IT delivery certainly is) it is better to learn and adjust than to strictly follow a plan made in advance. (I’ll explain in a moment how this is connected with Lean.) The idea of deliberately diverging from a plan might sound dangerous. It seems like it would be impossible to control and impossible to hold people accountable. But in fact it is not. It is rigorously controlled but through very different mechanisms.

I sometimes like to think of Agile techniques in terms of risk mitigation. If we make a detailed plan that covers—let’s say—a three-year project and then try to implement it, we are accepting a number of large risks, notably (1) the risk that the plan will have mistakes, (2) the risk that circumstances will change over those three years, and (3) the delivery risk that in three years the product will not have been completed. In the traditional way of delivering IT (the so-called Waterfall, or Gantt chart-obsessed approach), the product is not delivered until the end of the project, so the entire amount of the investment is at risk until the end of the three years when the results become visible (or not).

How serious are these risks? Very.

  • Detailed plans for IT systems are always wrong, as we have found in our experience over multiple decades. Studies have also shown that more than half of the features requested will rarely or never be used. And even if everything is delivered according to plan, it still might not meet the business need it was intended to address!
  • The amount of change we expect over the three years depends on the amount of uncertainty in the business and technical environments, and we happen to be in a time of fast change and high uncertainty. In the course of three years, startups are launched and disrupt entire industries. Agility is the ability of the business to respond to change, and it is contrary to sticking with a plan, yet extremely valuable.
  • A Microsoft study showed that only one-third of ideas actually have the intended result, another one-third have the opposite effect, and the last third are neutral. We have all seen cases where an IT system was supposed to reduce costs but didn’t, or was supposed to increase revenues but didn’t.[3]Another study found that companies are wasting nearly $400 billion per year on digital initiatives that don’t deliver their expected return.[4]
  • Numerous studies have shown that the larger an IT project is, the higher its risk of not delivering. A short increment of work is more likely to accomplish its goal and is more predictable.

Agile practices allow for constant learning and adjustment, working in small cycles to finish product and give it to users for feedback. It is practiced by small, autonomous, self-contained teams that can quickly learn and adjust with minimal ceremony. Because Agile teams are trying to finish product quickly, it is natural to combine Agile principles with Lean practices, which focus on reducing cycle times. The combination of the two gives businesses agility, risk mitigation, and cost-effectiveness.


In Lean theory, two important sources of waste are handoffs (motion and waiting) and large batch sizes. Traditional IT practices were based on handoffs between development, testing, and operations, who deployed the product. DevOps, the state-of-the-art set of practices in Lean and Agile IT, addresses these handoffs by combining development, testing, and operations skills on a single, small team accountable as a whole for results.

Large batch sizes in IT are large groups of requirements. A DevOps team processes only a small set of requirements at a time, using a highly automated process to deploy capabilities to users quickly before moving on to another small set of requirements. As a result, DevOps teams deploy code very often—sometime hundreds or thousands of times a day.

The heavy use of automation in DevOps has benefits for controls and compliance. Many of the organizational controls that would have been operated manually can now be automated, making them more reliable and easily documentable, and allowing them to be applied continuously rather than periodically.

DevOps is an excellent way to foster innovation. With it, new ideas can be tested quickly, inexpensively, and at low risk. Working in the cloud enhances these benefits: infrastructure can be provisioned instantly and then later be de-provisioned. IT capabilities that would take the enterprise a long time to build can be accessed as pre-created building blocks and incorporated into experiments.

So what are the business implications of Agile, Lean, and DevOps practices?

  • Fast time to market or time to value for internal use products
  • Less waste from producing unneeded capabilities
  • Less waste from producing capabilities that do not accomplish objectives
  • Less waste in processes (both inside and outside of IT)
  • Reduced risk
  • Increased innovation
  • Better operational controls through automation

Let’s return to the issues of control. In the traditional approach to overseeing IT initiatives, governance is primarily an upfront matter: once a go/no-go decision is made, overseers are generally uninvolved unless the project breaches thresholds or until certain milestones are reached. It is a discreteoversight process, popping into the picture at intervals but otherwise absent. You can think of the Agile approach as one of continuous oversightand transparency. The project team delivers frequently and results are apparent as those deliveries are made. Because of the agility of the process, the oversight body can choose to change direction at any moment, end the investment, increase it, or substitute other objectives.

With an Agile process the enterprise can fix and hold to a schedule or budget; it simply trades off scope to meet the schedule or budget. I suggest holding most cost categories fixed, just as one does with a budget. Budgets place a cap on what an organizational unit can do in a single budget cycle—once you run out of budget you stop spending. It’s the same with so-called “requirements.” (So-called because they are not really “required” but subject to budget availability!) If money runs out during an Agile IT project, then nothing has been lost because the work that has been finished is usable. In fact, the initiative can be terminated early, even if budget remains, based on changing priorities or because enough success has already been achieved. Or the enterprise can make a conscious decision to increase the budget to implement the remaining features. Agile is a continuous investment process, where the business case is (effectively) recalculated every moment.

Agile approaches place a high value on adjusting a plan as information becomes available, and a low value on conformance to the plan per se. But that doesn’t mean that it is uncontrolled. I think of it as being controlled by conformance to business objectives. As the project progresses, features are rolled out, their business impact is gauged, and the project is adjusted based on its impact on the intended objectives. The object is to get the best return from whatever is invested.

But you have to have agreement on what that “return” is intended to be. Cost savings? Increased revenue? Better customer service? Long-term agility? These are all valid goals. On the other hand, meeting all of the requirements specified at the beginning of a project is not a real business objective, nor is building a particular set of features. A healthy project is one that meets its objectives, not one that finishes all its requirements. It should continuously adapt in order to best accomplish those objectives, given reality.

CFOs should be as excited about these new IT approaches as CIOs are. They provide ways to get better results for the enterprise by taking advantage of what is now possible with IT tools.


[2]Poppendieck, Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, p. 4. These correspond to the classic sources of waste in Lean theory: inventory, extra processing, overproduction, transportation, waiting, motion, and defects.

[3]Humble, Jez, Lean Enterprise, p.179


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Inspiring the Pursuit of Success & Averting Drift into Failure

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The following is an excerpt from a presentation by Sidney Dekker, titled “The Human Factor: Inspiring the Pursuit of Success & Averting Drift into Failure.

You can watch the video of the presentation, which was originally delivered at the 2017 DevOps Enterprise Summit in San Francisco.

I’m going to show you my career in a snapshot.

Now, this is not all my fault, but I was on the backend of a lot of this, so I know what chaos looks like. This is chaos, pain, hurt, suffering, dead people, lots of dead people. And so, what do I do about it?

Lots of dev.

I write a lot of books, I made a film, and then I decided, “You know what? That’s all dev and no ops.”

After you produce so much stuff, they make you a professor and you go, “Oh my word I have to do this for another 34 years!” Which created a kind of an existential issue, and so I went all ops.

This is all ops. Somebody develops the airplane, like 50 years ago. Somebody maintains it, throws it over the wall and says “go fly!”

But I learned a couple of things in this pilot seat, which I’m going to share today, and it’s been confirmed by a lot of the research.

  • The first is, anything that puts downward pressure in your organization on honesty, disclosure, openness, and learning is bad for your business. You’re going to ask for trouble.
  • The second one is that any field of practice has a sweet spot when it comes to rules and standardization. But where is that sweet spot, and where is it for you? Where are you relative to it?
  • And the third one is, and that is really quite an important one, this fascination with counting and tabulating little negative events as if they are predictive of a big bad event over the horizon, is an illusion. We should be doing something quite different if we want to understand how your complex system is going to collapse and fail.

Now, when it comes to driving this jet, one of the things that I’ve become sensitive to being ops in this, is that you can throw stuff over the wall, but if you’re ops, you own the problem.

As a pilot, you have the privilege of arriving as the first person at the scene of the accident. It focuses the mind somewhat.

Who’s got this hanging off the wall?

Well, who does C++ anymore, you know? This is a really bad idea, all right.

But then I go into a warehouse, and I see this nonsense, you know.

Somebody’s counting this stuff, right? You go, oh, ‘but that’s really good, because we pursue excellence and we hold our people accountable for excellent outcomes, and excellent outcomes are the same as zero errors, and zero screw-ups and zero missed days,’ or whatever your KPI might be.

But THIS is an invitation to a big blow up just around the horizon, and I’ve got lots of data to show that, that’s the case.

Here is one example

This is a DuPont company, which is very, very safe, supposedly. But these guys killed four people in a gas release in LaPorte, Texas, not that long ago. Two of them are brothers. You’ve got three families, but one family’s got to bury two sons in the same week.

Now, the issue is how have they been managing their safety, their errors. If you look around the picture, you might see what they’re concerned about. It says, “Please take extra precaution when driving and walking.”

But, who got killed driving and walking? Somebody got killed in a gas release.

This focus, this obsession on “C++ mishap free days” doesn’t predict disaster at all. 

Now here are a lot of statistics from MIT

They want to be very intelligent people or come across as so. They make their statistics very complicated, but it shows something really interesting, which is the airline that seems to be less safe, actually won’t kill you. The airline that reports more incidents, has a lower passenger mortality risk.

Now, that’s fascinating. We replicated this data across various domains, construction, retail, various other domains, and we see that there is this inverse correlation between the number of incidents reported, the honesty, the willingness to take on that conversation about what might go wrong, and things actually going wrong.

If you’re going to fly back from San Francisco, find the airline that’s got the most incidents, and you get on the other end alive, okay. That’s the lesson.

Now let me take you to another really dangerous world

You think you’re sort of wonky, right? And you go to the hospital, but at the hospital 1 in 13 patients that walks in the door, comes out sicker than they went in if they come out at all. 

You get harmed by seeking care. 1 in 13, that’s about 7%.

Now the question is, what do you do with that one?

Well, you investigate it, and what do people find?

Typical, human errors, guidelines not followed, communication failures, miscalculations, procedural violations. And you go, “okay, fair enough. If that is how you get hurt, then let’s try not to do that.” Very simple.

What do we do? We declare a war on error. Clearly, error is a dangerous thing, we need to declare the war on error, which is both cute, and riling, and vexing at many levels.

But then we asked, do you know why the other 12 go right? Because it’s nice to find out why the one goes wrong, but why did the other 12 go right? Do you know that?

And the answer was, ‘Uh, no. We have no idea.’

Probably because there are no human errors, and no communication failures, and people follow all the procedures, and all the guidelines are followed, and they don’t miscalculate. The decimal point goes exactly where it needs to be. That’s why we get 12 good outcomes.

We started studying this, and there is no substitute, you have to go native. You have to go to ops. And this is what we did, we went ops in this hospital. And you know what we found? In the 12 that go right…

There was no difference. Human errors, guidelines not… the same stuff shows up. And yet, you survive. What’s the difference?


And this cuts across domains, and we’re discovering that in these patterns it’s not in what people aren’t doing… It is in what they are doing.

The distinction between screwing something up, and not screwing it up, is in the presence of positive capacities, not in the absence of negatives. That’s the distinction.

  • Are there people who say, this is not a good idea, stop, even in the face of acute production pressures?
  • Is the team taking past success as a guarantee of today’s success? In a dynamic complex system, that is an extraordinarily bad idea. Because past success is not predictive of success today.
  • How diverse is the team?
  • Is there a willingness to accommodate dissent? People say I disagree.
  • Is there an ability to listen to that?


🇬🇧 London
 Las Vegas: October 22-24, 2018

Having sat in that cockpit, I have experienced that the reward for not speaking up is much greater than the reward for speaking up. The reward for speaking up is namely uncertain and delayed. I may not even know that speaking up saved my own life.

The reward for shutting up is immediate, direct and certain. As in, I don’t get into social and reputational trouble with my captain.

But this is not the only thing we need to talk about

Let’s talk about rules and regulations.

Now, as I said, there is a sweet spot when it comes to rules. 

This is a square that used to have all these lights, thankfully now it’s all gone. But something fascinating happened here. This square had pretty bad accidents, about 10 a year, and some pretty bad outcomes. Now, a traffic engineer says, let’s take out all the rules, all the lights, and everything. After doing that, now they’re down to one accident, this has become a system in which people actually try to divine each other’s intention.

And spontaneously, they all slow down to the slowest common denominator on the square. No rules. Because nobody’s telling them to do that, there’s no sign.

This is literally horizontal coordination, the beautiful that we see in a complex system. I just wanted to show you those pictures to think about the sweet spot. Full autonomy, like here, or completely clocked with rules. There is a sweet spot. Aviation has long overshot that sweet spot, right, clogging itself with more rules.

Final message

If we want to understand, in complex systems, how things really are going to go badly wrong, what we shouldn’t do is try to glean predictive capacity just from the little bugs, and incidents, and the error counts that you do.

No, we need to understand how success is created, and I’m going to try to explain how that works.

A good colleague of ours in the trade tries to paint it like this. He says, “Much more goes right than goes wrong.” And this is probably true for all the work that we do. Much more goes right. And then when things go wrong, then we do post-mortems, then we send in the hoards to try to find out what happened, but we can learn from what goes right.

Now, my claim is going to be that not only should we be doing that because there’s lots of data to learn how things go right, but also because for us to know how things will really go wrong, we need to understand how they go right, and here’s how.

let’s first talk about Abraham Wald

Abraham Wald the father of operations research.

He was born in 1900, Austrian Hungarian Empire, and which for Jewish boys, not a good place to be to try to go to university in the 20s, 30s. And so, he immigrated, got to the US. Armed forces understood that he was very good at math, in particular statistics. They send him back to England, to solve the following problem. Bombers are coming back from Germany and they’ve got holes in them. Let’s call them ‘bugs’, all right. These bombers come back with lots of bugs. If you’re a pilot, that’s not cool.

And so, what they wanted was some predictive capacity for where to put some extra armor on these airplanes. Now, armor and airplanes are not good bedfellows. It’s not payload, it’s not fuel, and so it’s just dead weight, literally. You want to be very judicious with where you put it.

The question to Abraham was, where should we put the armor? Well, he says, let me do, get the data. And so, he measures, and he calculates, months go by. People get very impatient.

They want to put the armor where the holes are most likely to show up, right?

But Abraham says “Nein, we need to put the armor where there are no holes because those are the ones that don’t make it back.”

It’s such an important lesson, colleagues.

Put the armor where there are no holes because those are the ones that don’t make it back, those are the ones where the server will not come back.

Then I go out to the Australian outback.

His name is Nick, and he’s from Nottingham. There are lots of stickers on his hard hat, and there’s a little sticker on the back of his hard hat that says GSD.

I’m walking to another guy for the Midlands, and I say, “what’s this GSD thing?”

And he says, “Oh no, that just means get stuff done.”

And so, when I want to understand where the next fatality in that world is going to come from, you think that I’m going to look at the incidents, and the errors, and the bugs?

No, I’m going to look at the place where there’s no bugs and holes because that might be the one that won’t make it back.

I want to understand how Nick creates success because that is where failure is going to hide. Death will hide in his successes. I need to understand how Nick gets stuff done under resource constraints, goal conflicts, limited time, pressures, supervisory pressures, things that he needs to manage and control every day.

How does he still get it done? Because something has to give, and what is that?

I want to understand how Nick creates success.

Now let me take you to Greece

Here’s a diagram of one of their runways, which brings up the question of how does this airport look to you?

So, the big black thing down the middle is the runway. And there is that little white bar across the top near B, that is actually what we call the displaced threshold. You’re not supposed to land before that thing.

Why not?

Because there is lots of geology north of the runway, rocks. So, lots of rock, which you need to overfly in order to make it to the runway safe.

However, and here’s the issue, you want to pull off at Charlie, at the taxiway, because you want to go to the terminal building because there’s always pressure on turnaround times. Airplanes on the ground, lose money. Airplanes in the air, make money.

And so, you want to get them up. But taxi time is the worst thing in the world in order to get airplanes to turnaround quickly, and you know this from all the airports you fly out from.

You have to taxi all the way down to the little turning circle at the end of the runway, all the way back up, and then into the ramp.

Now, that takes five, six, seven minutes right there. If you have to turn around a 737 in 30 minutes, 25 minutes, that’s going to hurt so bad.

What happens?

You designed the system like this, you put that pressure on, and you know what behavior you get?

This is not photoshopped, and the other beautiful thing is, the traffic light is not controlled by the tower. It is pure chance.

What’s really cute is the little warning light on top of the traffic light!

But, do you think that this will be reported as an incident by the people up front? No. This is normal work, this is GSD.

They might have that imprinted on the back of their little caps. “I’m a GSD pilot, I get stuff done.”

However, if I want to understand how people are going to die, I am not going to look at the bugs, I’m going to listen to Abe Wald, and not look at the holes, and the bugs, and the little incident reports about this, that or the other irrelevant thing.

I need to study success. I need to understand how stuff gets done, and that goes for you, as well, both in dev and in ops. How does stuff get done despite the constraints?

How can this be safe for years? What is it that these people are doing to make it work despite the constraints and obstacles? That’s the question.

Understand how success is created, and it will take you to where failure is going to come from.


🇬🇧 London
 Las Vegas: October 22-24, 2018

The post Inspiring the Pursuit of Success & Averting Drift into Failure appeared first on IT Revolution.

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