Walk-out Syndrome

IMG_0541Have you ever experienced ‘walk-out syndrome‘?

Walk-out Syndrome (it’s my name, so I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it) is a real thing and it can be deadly.

It’s the phenomenon that occurs at the end of the day in the mountains – on the walk-out back to the campsite after the ‘real work’ is done. Even if you haven’t experienced it I’m sure you can imagine it – you’ve spent the day ticking off Munros, diligently navigating, watching the weather, keeping an eye on your partners and everything else needed for a safe day in the hills. The last summit is reached, smiles beam all around and the last bites of Kendle Mint Cake get scoffed. You’ve done it. Except you haven’t – you’re still in the same environment you were a minute ago, but you’ve relaxed, your guard is down and you’re more likely to make poor decisions that could result in a bad outcome.

Of course, walk-out syndrome doesn’t just happen in the hills. Oh no. Think of any activity that is fairly intensive, demands focus for a reasonable length of time and offers the opportunity of a false finish and you’ll find walk-out syndrome. In the sports world I’ve witnessed yachts crashing into each other after the race has finished (almost like no-one on board was looking around…) and fantastically talented rock climbers getting injured tripping over their own feet while they pack their kit away (despite having been ultra-agile and balanced, defying gravity not five minutes ago).

If we widen the net a little we can find examples of incidents all around that look like they belong to the same family as ‘walk-out syndrome. Take DIY accidents, as an example. The first few cuts with the chop saw are careful, considered, well handled. Nothing goes wrong, so perhaps we relax our standards a little – the work piece isn’t as well secured, we swap the next piece in before the blade has full stopped and so on. Ladder accidents are another common cause of injury, surveys suggesting that ‘over-reaching’ is a common underlying cause. I wonder how many of these accidents are on the first time up the ladder and how many are on the nth time up, when the ladder is not being re-positioned as frequently as before?  I know I’ve done it – but, crucially, I’ve got away with it.

How can we explain this phenomena? I think there are at least two things happening, related but independent:

  1. We get fatigued, lulled into a false sense of security, and don’t recognise the signs that the situation we’re in is changing.  Or we feel as though the situation has changed (into something inherently simpler) and it hasn’t.  We walk off the mountain in the wrong direction.
  2. We seem to have a tendency to trade-off standards for speed and/or convenience.  We have a hypothesis that our standards are too high, we  back this up by the evidence that nothing yet has gone wrong, and we start to shave away at the stuff that has prevented bad things from happening so far.  We reach a little further along the gutter and fall off the ladder.

This second version interests me when we consider how it might apply to software project delivery:

  • Time pressure to push that last code-fix through so we skipped the code review
  • End of sprint, so I’ll deliver to keep the velocity up
  • A couple of tests failed, but they’re edge- or corner-cases so we’ll deploy it anyway

Aren’t these examples from the same family?  We might get away with it, but that just provides evidence that we were justified in our actions and makes it more likely that we’ll make the same decisions again.

So what can we do about it? Well, like many things, half the battle is in noticing when you’re in that zone as, by it’s very nature, walk-out syndrome and it’s friends sneak up on you un-noticed. So try to stay conscious of your decision making :

  • Speak to your colleagues about your intentions and listen to (and watch) their reactions.
  • Notice when the team starts to tolerate shortcuts and question whether that is a risk or not.
  • Be curious about deviations from normal and make sure that they’re the right thing to do. 
  • Keep your senses open to outliers and weak signals. 
  • Use tools like your ‘Definition of Done’  & ‘Definition of Ready’ wisely, keep them fresh and relevant.  They’ll help you stay in the conscious and prevent looking but not seeing.

There’s an anti-pattern too.  Dogmatically following process can itself be a reason why you don’t notice a situational change – dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s without reading the words, so to speak.  In Cynefin terms this is the drop from obvious into chaos

Another favourite anti-pattern is the addition of a little bit of process in response to every failure or near-miss, leading to layers and layers of highly-specialised ‘crud’ that can eat capacity.  It may feel like a good idea (you didn’t put each bit in place for fun, after all), but what you really want is general resilience.  Or, better still, anti-fragility.

To finish, there’s a nice article here in the Harvard Business review that I found after I’d connected walk-out syndrome with similar incidents at work.

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