Rashomon Effect (in building software)

TL;DR Due to software's innate complexity & its ephemeral character it may not be easy to assess the "level of its completeness" (/readiness) - it's not only...

9 months ago

Latest Post How does Dunning–Kruger effect impact collaboration in tech teams by Sebastian Gebski

TL;DR Due to software's innate complexity & its ephemeral character it may not be easy to assess the "level of its completeness" (/readiness) - it's not only that opinions on that may vary, people are also reluctant to give final statements (due to high degree of uncertainty). In the end of X participants you may hear X different statements, not just misaligned, but sometimes even contradictory. This effect (similar to key plot construct in japanese movie classic - "Rashomon") can be combated in quite a simple way: by promoting radical transparency and consistently stressing for making clear distinction between facts & opinions.

I guess you all know the pleasant sensation that happens while you're participating in a discussion & what others say perfectly matches your own practical experience (/observation). Especially when they are able to name it more accurately, provide a more striking metaphor (or more accureately depicting) or just frame it conceptually in more clear manner (than you did before). I love this feeling as well. I had it during recent DDD Europe while discussing so-called "Rashomon Effect".


If you didn't heard about it (& didn't bother to follow the link I've provided ...), it's an interesting psychological effect that happens when several people (/groups of people) who are exposed to the same event / occurence / phenomenon, interpret & report it in a different & frequently fundamentally contradicting way. This effect usually happens when all the participants have some stake in the event - they are either (at least partially) responsible or just play a more or less active role. This fact encourages the excessive simplification of this phenomenon's interpretation - we too eagerly assume people are just CYAing to secure their own interest, while in fact - it's a bit more complex.

I guess you've already figured it out, so I'll just briefly point out that this phenomenon takes its name from famous (& absolutely brilliant) movie "Rashomon" by Akira Kurosawa - this effect was something whole plot of the movie was built upon.

Moving in a fog

What does it have in common with building software? Oh, quite a lot.

One of the hardest challenges in building software is ... finding out where you are at particular moment (some would call it "delivery governance"). Ofc there are companies with an actual ability of Continuous Deployment/Delivery who measure the progress with actual working software available for users on production (so they always know exactly where they are ...), but these are still a fraction in context of whole industry, so let's focus on vast majority who's not there yet.

By "where you are" I mean:

"Liars, you all LIE!"

Unsurprisingly, whoever you'll ask, there will be a different answer - developers have their own opinions (various specialties / teams can have DIFFERENT ones), so do testers, business stakeholders, managers, analysts ... Additionally, these opinions tend to (if not "put under appropriate level of scrutiny") be far from tangible (/measureable in objective units):

What makes whole topic more tricky - if various groups' opinions vary, it doesn't necessarily mean that (almost?) everone is lying, in many cases everyone involved is fully convinced their perspective is the most truthy (& justified) one.

So why does this ("Rashomon effect") happen?

There's plethora of reasons that may seem very different:

As you can see, all of the points above can be generalized to one, root cause -> they are based on opinions -> subjective, susceptible to bias, somehow fuzzy OPINIONS (yes, estimation is also an opinion!). Everyone has one, these rarely do match & the justifications are individual (& usually quite hard to rely upon objectively).

Way of a samurai

Opinions are not that bad & can be turned into something accountable as long as one is fully independent & does not rely on external factors. Sadly it's rarely the case. So in practice all the governance has to rely on facts, instead of opinions.

What are the typical facts you can base your governance upon then?

  1. past time metrics - not hand-crafted (/ estimated), but taken directly from various side-effects of actual work taking place (e.g. cycle time = difference between the moment of backlog item's first appearance & its actual deployment on production)
  2. hard (work-)system constraints - e.g. unmovable deadlines (legislative ones, etc.)
  3. verified bottlenecks (it doesn't make much sense to measure / optimize for anything that is NOT on the critical path)
  4. actual work - visualised & published according to the principles of radical transparency; teams who follow this concept actually treat being pro-actively open about their work as their priority number one

But is it (real-time governance) that important? Well, actual work does have to happen anyway, so maybe the point is not to overthink it, huh?

According to all I know about this business, the initial plans & estimations are important, but what really matters is what you learn (& how you react in response to that) on the way - adaptation to ever-changing conditions. If you can't properly assess the situation, what do you want to adapt to? It is a serious problem, because:

  1. trust once lost (due to differences in perception, detected never too soon) is very hard to gain back
  2. decisions based on false perception are far from optimal
  3. attempts to fix the situation that may have been escalated far earlier may have to be far more painful for the whole team (crunch-time, crippled product, feeling of being cheated/lied to)

What's probably even worse, Rashomon effects leads to the permanent state of desynchronisation where (once things start getting really nasty & it's more than clear for everyone that project / product is completely derailed) ...

P.S. If you haven't yet, I encourage you to watch "Rashomon" just for fun - this movie is almost 70 yrs old, but still pleasure to watch. You can watch it for free here.

Sebastian Gebski

Published 9 months ago

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