Withholding information is one of those things that many of us do without even thinking about it, but it comes at a cost. Once you start doing it you limit what you, and others, can learn.
I run a workshop to teach people the basics (really the absolute basics) of incident analysis. Incident analysis is the practice of observing, interpreting, explaining, and learning from an event, usually one that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. My goal in the workshop is to explain the philosophy behind such an analysis and to provide a structured and supportive space for everyone to apply these techniques to real life incidents from their own experience.
Each time I teach this workshop, I gain further insight into how people take these principles, embed them into their own way of thinking, and practise the skills. A recent workshop was particularly instructive because it highlighted how strongly people will hold onto and hide information to get the outcome that they want and avoid the discomfort of learning something new.
I start the workshop by explaining the philosophy and mindset needed for effective incident analysis. For me, these are about understanding blame and the role that determinism has in that. I want people to approach the incident as something to be understood instead of a way of proving someone correct.
After my sermon on the good and evil of incident analysis, we work through an analysis step by step in groups. The first step is for someone to describe an incident to their group. The group explores the incident and attempts to understand what about the described situation made it a “problem”. What they come up with will strongly influence what they will learn through the rest of the workshop.
One group’s incident story was (vaguely) that new software was being deployed overnight and required the coordination of various teams. Shortly after starting, at around midnight, they encountered a problem with the database changes. The DBA who was applying the changes reported that the system had run out of disk space, which meant that the deploy couldn’t go forward. The teams tried to correct the problem over the next hour or two, but eventually, they decided to roll back and try again another night. The rollback was finished and at around four or five in the morning and the conference call was ended. The storyteller arrived home at around six and then came back into work later that morning.
The group ended up framing the problem as a lack of access, which meant that the team couldn’t properly respond to the problems as they came up. After the workshop, however, I found out that the story had been manipulated to get this outcome! The person presenting the incident told me he had guided the discussion and left out certain details because he “didn’t want to go there”.
I was caught by surprise. Flabbergasted even! The sentiment that he “didn’t want to go there” is another side of “I know the solution already”, which is what I thought my workshop was about avoiding. Throughout the workshop, I strove to make it clear that we need to look at what happened, look at it from many different angles, reserve our judgement early on, and pay attention to our own biases so that we can compensate for them during the investigation and analysis. And here I had someone using his bias to get the outcome that he was looking for!
What I found most surprising was that even in a situation set up to be about exploring a problem from many angles and looking for new information, someone would decide to withhold what they knew in order to control the outcome. I find it both sad and unsurprising.
People will try to control situations like this for many different reasons. They could be trying to protect themselves. They could honestly believe that they are saving others from wasted effort or concern. However, the thing that we all need to learn from this story, and others like it, is that (almost) no matter how much we try, we won’t have the complete story. While we have to strive not to be a part of the problem, we have to work with what we can get and do the best with that as we can.