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Rebecca Wirfs-Brock’s Blog and Informal Essays

“Software Decision Making Under Stress"

I recently blogged about my discomfort with making software design decisions at “the last responsible moment” and suggested that deciding at the “most responsible moment” might be a better approach. To me, a slight semantic shift made a difference in how I felt. Deciding at the most responsible moment made me feel less stressed and more in control of the situation.

But is this because I am basically lazy, preferring to put off decisions until they absolutely, positively must be made (and then hating that gut wrenching feeling when I finally realize that I don’t have enough time to think things through)? Or is something else going on?

I admit that the decisions we make about software development on a day in/day out aren’t always made under extreme stress; yet I thought I’d see what researchers say about decision-making under stress. As a developer I benefit from some stress, but not too much. That’s why (reasonable) deadlines and commitments are important. But first, a disclaimer. I have not exhaustively researched the literature on this topic. I suspect there are more relevant and recent publications than what I found. But the two papers I read got me thinking. And so, I want to share them.

Giora Keinan, in a 1987 Journal of Personal and Social Psychology article, reports on a study that examined whether “deficient decision making” under stress was largely due to not systematically considering all relevant alternatives. He exposed college student test subjects to “controllable stress,” “uncontrollable stress,” or no stress, and measured how it affected their ability to solve interactive decision problems. In a nutshell, being stressed didn’t affect their overall performance. However, those who were exposed to stress of any kind tended to offer solutions before they considered all available alternatives. And they did not systematically examine the alternatives.

Admittedly, the test subjects were college students doing word analogy puzzles. And the uncontrolled stress was the threat of a small random electric shock; but still, the study demonstrated that once you think you have a reasonable answer, you jump to it more quickly under stress. (Having majored in psychology and personally performed experiments on college students, I can anecdotally confirm that while college students are good test subjects, one should take care to not over-generalize any results.)

So, is stress “good” or “bad”? Is systematically considering all viable alternatives before making a decision a better strategy (or not)? Surely, we in the software world know we never have enough time to make perfectly researched decisions. And big-upfront-decision-making, without confirmation is discouraged these days. Agile developers believe that making just-in-time design decisions result in better software.

But what are the upsides or downsides to jumping to conclusions too hastily? What happens if you feel too stressed when you have to make a decision? To gain some insight into that, I turned to a summary article, Judgment and decision making under stress: an overview for emergency managers, by Kathleen M. Kowalski-Trakofler, Charles Vaught, and Ted Sharf of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. These authors raised many questions about the status quo of stress research and the need for more grounded studies. However, they also drew three interesting conclusions:

  1. Under extreme stress (think natural disasters, plane crashes, war and the like), successful teams tend to communicate among themselves. As the emergency intensifies, a flatter communication hierarchy develops with more (unsolicited) information coming from the field to the command centre. Under stressful, emergency situations, communication becomes streamlined and localized. Also, people take personal initiative to inform leaders about the situation.
  2. Stress is affected by perception; it is the perceived experience of stress that an individual reacts to. When you perceive a situation as stressful, you start reacting as if it were stressful. What is stressful to you is what’s important. And not everyone reacts well under stress. Training helps emergency responders to not freak out in an emergency, but those of us in the software world aren’t nearly so well-trained to respond to software crises. When is the last time you had software crises training?
  3. Contrary to popular opinion, judgment is not always compromised under stress. Although stress may narrow the focus of attention (the data are inconclusive), this is not necessarily a negative consequence in decision making. Some studies show that the individual adopts a simpler mode of information processing that may help in focusing on critical issues. So, we can effectively make reasonable decisions if we find and focus on the critical issues. If we miss out on a critical issue, well, things may not work out so well.

Reading these papers confirmed some suspicions I had: Stress is something we perceive. It doesn’t matter whether others share your perception or not. If you feel stressed, you are stressed. And you are more likely to make decisions without considering every alternative. That can be appropriate if your decisions are localized, you have experience, and you have a means of backing out of a decision if it turns out to be a bad one. But under extreme stress things start to break down. And then, if you haven’t had emergencytraining, how you respond is somewhat unpredictable.

I hope that we can start some ongoing discussions within the software community about design decisions and decision-making in general. How do you, your team or your management react to, avoid, or thrive on stress? Do you think agile practices help or hinder decision-making? If so, why? If not, why not.