It Worked For Me

“Well, it worked for me.”  This has become a phrase that I have heard over and over again in defense of what would logically be otherwise considered a bad idea.  These words are often spoken innocently enough without deep intent, but they often cover deep meaning that should be explored.

But it is important to understand what drives these words both psychologically as well as technically.  At a high level, what we have is the delivery of an anecdote which can be restated as such: “While the approach or selection that I have used goes against your recommendation or best practices or what have you, in my particular case the bad situation of which you have warned or advised against has not arisen and therefore I believe that I am justified in the decision that I have made.”

I will call this the “Anecdotal Dismissal of Risk” or better known as “Outcome Bias.”  Generally this phrase is used to wave off the accusation that one has either taken on unnecessary risk or taken on unnecessary financial expense or, more likely, both.  The use of an anecdote for either of these cases is, of course, completely meaningless but the speaker does so with the hope of throwing off the discussion and routing it around their case by suggesting, without saying it, that perhaps they are a special case that has not been considered or, perhaps, that “getting lucky” is a valid form of decision making.

Of course, when talking risk, we are talking about statistical risk.  If anything was a sure thing, and could be proven or disproved with an anecdote, it would not be risk but would just be a known outcome and making the wrong choice would be amazingly silly.  Anecdotes have a tiny place when using in the negative, for example: They claim that it is a billion to one chance that this would happen, but it happened to me on the third try and I know one other person that it happened to.  That’s not proof, but anecdotally it suggests that the risk figures are unlikely correct.

That case is valid, still incredibly important to realize that even negative anecdotal evidence (anecdotal evidence of something that was extremely unlikely to happen) is still anecdotal and does not suggest that the results will happen again, but at least it suggests that you were an amazing edge case.  If you know of one person that has won the lottery, that’s unlikely but doesn’t prove that the lottery is likely to be won.  If you know that every other person you know who has played the lottery has won, something is wrong with the statistics.

However, the “it worked for me” case is universally used with risk that is less than fifty percent (if it were not the whole thing would become crazy.)  Often it is about taking something four nines reliability and reducing it to three nines when attempting to raise it.  Three nines of something still means that there is only a one in one thousand chance that the bad case will arise.  This isn’t statistically likely to occur, obviously.  At least we would hope that it was obvious.  Even though, in this example, the bad case arises ten times more often than it would have it we had left well enough alone and maybe one hundred times more than how often we intended for it to arise we still expect to never see the bad outcome unless we run thousands or tens of thousands of cases and then the statistics are still based on a rather small pool.

In many cases we talk about an assumption of unnecessary risk but generally this is risk at a financial cost. What prompts this reaction a great deal of the time, in my experience, is a reaction to being demonstrated a dramatic overspending – implementing very costly solutions when a less costly one, often fractionally as expensive, may approach or, in many cases, exceed the chosen solution that is being defended.

To take the reverse, out of any one thousand people, nine hundred and ninety nine of them, doing this same thing, would be expected to have no bad outcome.  For someone to claim, then, that the risk is one part in one thousand and have one of the nine hundred and ninety nine step forward and say “the risk can’t exist because I am not the incredibly unlikely one to have had the bad thing happen to me” obviously makes no sense whatsoever when looking at the pool as a whole.  But when we are the ones who made the decision to join that pool and then came away unscathed it is an apparently natural reaction to discount the assumed outcome of even a risky choice and assume that the risk did not exist.

It is difficult to explain risk in this way but, over the years, I’ve found a really handy example to use that tends to explain business or technical risk in a way that anyone can understand.  I call it the Mother Seatbelt Example.  Try this experiment (don’t actually try it but lie to your mother and tell her that you did to see the outcome.)

Drive a car without wearing a seatbelt for a whole day while continuously speeding.  Chances are extremely good that nothing bad will happen to you (other than paying some fines.)  The chances of having a car accident and getting hurt, even while being reckless in both your driving and disregarding basic safety precautions, is extremely low.  Easily less than one in one thousand.   Now, go tell your mother what you just did and say that you feel that doing this was a smart way to drive and that you made a good decision in having done so because “it worked out for me.”  Your mother will make it very clear to you what risky decisions mean and how anecdotal evidence of expected survival outcome does not indicate good risk / reward decision making.

In many cases, “it worked for me” is an attempt at deflection.  A reaction of our amygdala in a “fight or flight” response to avoid facing what is likely a bad decision of the past.  Everyone has this reaction, it is natural, but unhealthy.  By taking this stance of avoiding critical evaluation of past decisions we make ourselves more likely to continue to repeat the same bad decision or, at the very least, continue the bad decision making process that lead to that decision.  It is only by facing critical examination and accepting that past decisions may not have been ideal that we can examine ourselves and our processes and attempt to improve them to avoid making the same mistakes again.

It is understandable that in any professional venue there is a desire to save face and appear to have made if not a good decision, at least an acceptable one and so the desire to explore logic that might undermine that impression is low.  Even moreso there is a very strong possibility that someone who is a potential recipient of the risk or cost that the bad decision created will learn of the past decision making and there is, quite often, an even stronger desire to cover up any possibility that a decision may have been made without proper exploration or due diligence.  These are understandable reactions but they are not healthy and ultimately make the decision look even poorer than it would have.  Everyone makes mistakes, everyone.  Everyone overlooks things, everyone learns new things over time.  In some cases, new evidence comes to light that was impossible to have known at the time.  There should be no shame in past decisions that are less than ideal, only in failing to examine them and learn from them allowing us as individuals as well as our organizations to grow and improve.

The phrase seems innocuous enough when said.  It sounds like a statement of success.  But we need to reflect deeper.  The risk scenario we showed above.  But what about the financial one.  When a solution is selected that carries little or no benefits, and possibly great caveats as we see in many real world cases, while being much more costly and the term “it worked for me” is used, what is really being said is “wasting money didn’t get me in trouble.”  When used in the context of a business, this is quite a statement to make.  Businesses exist to make money.  Wasting money on solutions that don’t meet the need better is a failure whether the solution functions technically or not.  Many solutions are too expensive but would not fail, choosing the right solution always involves getting the right price for the resultant situation.  That is just the nature of IT in business.

Using this phrase can sound reasonable to the irrational, defense brain.  But to outsiders looking in with rational views it actually sounds like “well, I got away with…” fill in the blank: “wasting money”, “being risky”, “not doing my due diligence”, “not doing my job”, or whatever the case may be.  And likely whatever you think should be filled in there will not be as bad as what others assume.

If you are attempted to justify past actions by saying “it worked for me” or by providing anecdotal evidence that shows nothing, stop and think carefully.  Give yourself time to calm down and evaluate your response.  Is is based on logic or irrational amygdala emotions?  Don’t be ashamed of having the reaction, everyone has it.  It cannot be escaped.  But learning how to deal with it can allow us to approach criticism and critique with an eye towards improvement rather than defense.  If we are defensive, we lose the value in peer review, which is so important to what we do as IT professionals.

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