“Saying what people failed to do, or implying what they could or should have done to prevent the mishap, has no role in understanding human error.”

– Sidney Dekker

The Coulda Shoulda Woulda Brothers are pervasive in the wake of error. I see them most often in the critique of software failure (by myself and others) but they have a habit of dropping in on me whenever I’m frustrated or inconvenienced by the mistakes of others.

I’ve been thinking about how to better understand the intentions of others in order to increase my cognitive empathy – understanding the mental state of others (as opposed to emotional empathy – feeling what others feel.) I think a strong sense of cognitive empathy holds the key to unlocking a deeper level of interpersonal interaction and mindfulness. Why do people make seeming obvious mistakes, such as building a website that doesn’t work? To annoy me? No, I don’t think so.

I recently read a great article by John Allspaw about the SEC’s non-post-mortum of the Knight Capital software bug ($465 million dollar loss in 45 minutes.) He observes that the SEC’s report provides primarily counterfactuals – what they coulda shoulda woulda done, which is useless for understanding the true cause of error.

“People do what makes sense to them, given their focus, their goals, and what they perceive to be their environment.”

– John Allspaw

People aren’t stupid. There is a good explanation for the decisions that led to the massive trading loss and subsequent bankruptcy of the company. But the SEC, as a regulatory body, only needs to point out the difference between the system as described and the system as implemented, not to understand why the difference existed. Outcome Bias leads us to believe the decisions must have been really stupid because the results were really bad. But it was just humans doing what human do – trying their best with good intentions and occasionally failing.

The idea of speaking the raw truth about people’s actions and intentions in order to preserve their humanity is the central theme of Orson Scott Card’s book Speaker For The Dead. Ender Wiggin travels the galaxy “speaking” at the behest of the deceased all the good and bad truth about their lives. A good technical post-mortem should embody the same ruthless dedication to the truth about human error. Yes, you blew up the company by pushing the red button. But why did you think it was the right thing to do?

The Coulda Shoulda Woulda Brothers have no role in understanding any human behavior. They are just a seductively easy path to self righteousness and hubris (and probably another error.)

P.S – John Allspaw’s article really is a great read if you can spare the time.