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Tuesday March 29th 2011 10am

On Work Avoidance

Testing Software Test and QA
Last time I wrote about  Tester Fatigue, and I would like to continue this short series on productivity killers by writing about Work Avoidance.

"Writers block" and procrastination are open secrets in the writing profession; there have been entire television episodes, if not shows themselves, dedicated to the idea that under a deadline writers will do anything to avoid the work they need to be doing.

This problem where we think we need to be doing something, yet some part of the brain tricks us into doing something else seems to be universal to the human condition -- how among us hasn't put off studying for that test, writing that report, or cleaning out office?  Who hasn't looked at a clock at 8:00PM, set the alarm for 6:00AM, then re-set it (or pressed snooze) when the time comes?

Our software development work is no different than any other part of our lives, so this happens in software, as well.  

We get coffee, we check email, we read a blog post.  Pull up the software and, look, gotta build an environment.  Better get more coffee.  Now back from coffee ... hmm ... I wonder if I have any email.  Read email and ... hey, meeting in ten minutes.  Better get ready ...

Has that ever happened to you?

It's a problem I've been aware of for years, but I never had a name for it until reviewing some writing by Mike Kelly and Karen Johnson -- they used the term "Work Avoidance."

When I've seen this problem in the workplace, the typical explanation I hear is that "Bob needs some discipline" or that "Bob has a poor work ethic; don't hang out with him."  I find both of those answers unsatisfactory.  In fact, I hope that by digging a little deeper, we can (sometimes) turn these productivity problems into an advantage.

Let me explain.

Just Have Some Discipline!

That's certainly the simplest explanation, that Joe is a slacker, or that I need to keep "pushing through."

Yet I think back to the times I  have experienced that mental pain -- for example, when I was trying to read material to pass certain kinds of certification exams.  

It was weird.  The process of /reading/ the material was physically painful.  Unless I took notes, I found that, two pages after I finished a page (or after finishing a chapter), I could not tell you want the chapter was about.

So I forced myself to buckle down, have discipline, take notes, and use a highlighter.

Eventually, in every case, I abandoned the certifications and did just fine. If I had only listened to that 'other' part of my brain, the part screaming "this is a waste of your time!" I would have abandoned them sooner, and could have gone and done something interesting with the time.

Maybe, just maybe, in some cases, work avoidance isn't a sign we need discipline.  It is a sign that something is wrong.

Avoidance in the Workplace

Let's take a concrete example.  Say you get up for your third mug of coffee and realized you haven't made any progress today on the foo project - you know, the one you feel anxious about that is supposed to be your number one priority.  (Or say, as a boss, you notice Joe keeps getting Coffee and talking to people about how much foo stinks, but doesn't seem to be spending time on his keyboard, working on foo.)

Why might that be?  A few possibilities:

(1) The work is not well defined.  I don't know what I need to do, so I avoid it.  (One group that I worked with would, as a matter of routine, pull work tickets off a queue.  In nine cases out of ten, the ticket would be vague or inconsistent, requiring some decision from an executive, who probably filed it six months ago and was busy.  So the team would push the ticket onto the "waiting" stack, then pull off another ticket.  How many times do you think this happens before the team members stop looking for work?)

(2) The test process is not well defined.  I need to set up a certain kind of virtual environment, or database, or web-server, and I don't know how.  All the developers do, and if I ask, I'll feel stupid, so I just avoid the work.

(3) I'm burnt out.  Instead of dealing with my tester fatigue, I work on non-work things and surf Dilbert.com

(4) The work feels meaningless.  I'm working on an internal application no one uses, or a project I know will be killed next week, or documenting a business process no one follows.  Because the work will not effect anyone's life in any way, I'm not particularly interested in it.  (While the extreme example is uncommon, I find it is very common for a low-status team member to be given grunt work that the big boss doesn't care about.  Then we are surprised when the work is done sloppily, or have our bias that Joe is a sloppy worker reinforced.)

(5) The work is too routine.  For example: In order to verify one bug, I need to spend forty-five minutes setting up the environment.  That means I need to cut/paste some things, run a process, wait for it to finish, paste some more, wait, click a button, paste, etc.  Another example: Documenting 'test cases' for a system we have already tested, in the exhaustive, 4-pages-per-test-case format prescribed by the process process. 

(6) The work is morally painful.  Consider what it's like to test software for the government that snoops on phone conversations, or software written by a time-share agency that deliberately over-sells timeshares and uses manipulative sales tactics.   Examples in the real world but might be quite this bad, but consider: I was once asked to do a code review; I said the code should not go out, that it had obvious bugs in it that I could see by reading.  The response from my management (under extreme pressure) was that I was documenting that code review had occurred, not certifying the software for release.  Those conversations caused me physical pain.

There are plenty of other explanations of Work Avoidance, and yes, "just being a slacker" is on the list.  Yet when we have a rock-star producer who suddenly starts avoiding work, I would think "being a slacker" should be the last option, not the first.

What to do about it

Notice that you can't do much about "Joe is a slacker"; it is a judgement, not a problem.  Yet re-defined as the problems above, well, those you actually can do something about.  (Or, if you are the Boss, you can engage the worker to figure out what the problem is, and do something about it.)

If the work is too routine, you can write helper scripts to automate the routine parts away.

If it is meaningless, you can negotiate how much work will get done and seek other assignments.

If the process is undefined, you can ask for help defining it.

If the work itself is undefined, you can bring a systemic problem to management, and suggest some fixes.

If the work is morally painful, that's a tickler to your brain -- it might be time to change your job, or else, maybe, well ... change your job.

Work Avoidance, yes, that's a real thing.  It happens from time to time. I find that often, when it happens, the subconscious mind is trying to tell us something.

Instead of "forcing ourselves" to "have discipline" or jumping to conclusions about work ethics, we may be better off by pausing and listening to it.



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