The fundamental attribution error

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:29 pm

When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. This mistake is so common that it has a name: The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) (See “The Fundamental Attribution Error” at my other blog). And although little experimental data is available regarding its effects on technical debt, we can plausibly argue that its effects are significant—and unwelcome.

Arapaho moccasins ca. 1880-1910.
Arapaho moccasins ca. 1880-1910. An American Indian proverb advises, “Don’t judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” From the perspective of the FAE, the proverb is a way of mitigating FAE risks. Photo of Arapaho moccasins, ca. 1880-1910 on exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Daderot, courtesy Wikimedia
The FAE contributes to technical debt in at least two ways. First, it distorts assessments by non-engineers of the motivations of engineers as they warn of future difficulties from technical debt. Second, it distorts assessments by engineers of the motivations of non-engineers as they oppose allocation of resources to technical debt retirement. They oppose these allocations in order to conserve resources for their own efforts or to accelerate efforts in which they have more immediate interest. The two effects are symmetrical in the large, though not in detail.

Below is a description of the effects of the FAE on engineers and non-engineers. Some of the non-engineers are the internal customers of the engineers. I examine the effects of the FAE that arise from three different claims of the parties to the exchange.

Claim: Technical debt depresses engineering productivity

Many engineers or their managers hold this position.

Engineers notice incidents in which some of the work they must perform on an asset would be much easier or even unnecessary were it not for the technical debt that the asset carries. They sense the burden of the extra effort because they know how much easier and faster the work would be if they could retire the debt.

The internal customers of engineers don’t see these circumstances as clearly as engineers and their managers do. Consequently, they tend to discount engineers’ claims of depressed productivity. Some experience engineers’ complaints, requests, and warnings as whining, self-serving nest feathering, or worse. They tend to attribute engineers’ complaints to faults in the character or “work ethic” of engineers.

Claim: Instead of retiring the technical debt now, just document it for later

This is a suggestion senior managers or the engineers’ internal customers often put forth.

The internal customers of engineers have pressing needs for immediate engineering results. They see new products or repairs to existing products as a means of achieving the objectives the enterprise sets. Focusing limited engineering resources on technical debt retirement conflicts with producing results that would help internal customers of engineers meet these more immediate objectives. As a compromise, non-engineers propose that engineers document instances of technical debt as they find them, so that they can be addressed more efficiently after engineers meet the immediate needs of internal customers.

Engineers discount the validity of this approach for three reasons. First, they don’t experience the pressures their internal customers do. To engineers, their customers’ reports of more pressing needs seem to be merely excuses to get what they want when they want it. Second, the proposed documentation work doesn’t advance the engineers’ customer’s current project toward its objectives. Instead, it actually delays the current project, in ways invisible to non-engineers. These delays induce increases in schedule pressure, and therefore technical debt. The technical debt occurs because the customer of the current project rarely cares enough about the technical debt documentation effort to allow for the extra time it takes. Finally, because many assets evolve continuously, such documentation has a short shelf life. And that limits its value in ways non-engineers might not appreciate.

In these ways, the FAE both creates the documentation suggestion, and limits the ability of engineers to appreciate its motivation. But it also limits the ability of non-engineers to appreciate how limited is the value of the documentation.

Claim: Addressing technical debt is important, but not urgent

Senior managers or the engineers’ internal customers are most common among adherents of this belief.

When the engineering organization presents a business case for investing in addressing technical debt, they aren’t alone. Other functions in the enterprise also make business cases of their own. Too often, these cases are evaluated against each other. Investment in one entails reduced investment in another. But the benefits of technical debt retirement tend to become most visible to non-engineers much later than do the benefits of some other proposals. Sometimes the benefits of technical debt retirement are wholly invisible to non-engineers. For these reasons, technical debt retirement projects tend perhaps more often than most to be deferred at best, or, worse, rejected.

The FAE is in part responsible for the perception of non-engineers that the benefits of technical debt remediation arrive in the distant future. Engineers notice the benefits relatively immediately, because they interact with the rehabilitated assets on a daily basis. Since non-engineers don’t have these experiences, they notice the benefits only upon delivery of the results of engineering work. This mismatch of the timescales of perceptions of engineers and non-engineers prevents non-engineers from perceiving what is in daily evidence to engineers.

Last words

Both engineers and non-engineers are subject to deadlines and resource limitations beyond their control. Their ability to appreciate the challenges their counterparts face is the key to effective collaboration. Too often, neither part feels that it has the time or resources to accommodate the needs of the other.

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