The Illusion of Control

The Starship Enterprise was usually in control…

Recently I listened to one of Amitai Schlair’s excellent Agile in 3 Minutes podcasts (also available on iTunes), about Control. We had a brief Twitter conversation about it with Karina B., aka @GertieGamer. Amitai tweeted, “We can’t control what happens to us, but we control how we’d like to feel about it next time + what we do about it.” Karina tweeted, “the illusion of control is a fun magic trick that always leaves people wanting more”.

My dressage trainer, Elaine Marion, with Flynn
My dressage trainer, Elaine Marion, with Flynn

I enjoy the illusion of being in control. I think that’s one reason that one of my equestrian sports of choice is dressage. If I bombed around a cross-country jumping course on horseback, I’d have to let the horse make many of the decisions. The dressage arena feels so much more genteel. If I’m in perfect communion with my mount, performing the well-defined movements, I feel like I’m in charge. It’s a nice illusion! (In truth, I should be allowing the horse to perform correctly…)

The “What-Ifs”

I’ve been driving my miniature donkeys for many years. We’ve learned so much from my donkey trainer, Tom Mowery, and I trust my boys to take care of me. Still, if I’m driving my wagon with my donkey team down the road, and a huge RV motors towards us, I start getting what Tom calls the “what-ifs”. What if they run into the path of the RV? What if they spook and run into the ditch? I have an even worse case of the “what-ifs” with my newest donkey, a standard jenny, who is still a beginner at pulling a cart. She doesn’t steer reliably yet. My illusion of control is easily dispelled. What if she runs into that fence? This happens to software teams as well. What if we missed some giant bug? What if this isn’t the right feature?

We don’t need control – we need trust in our skills

Enjoying the view with Marsela
Enjoying the view and forgetting the “What-ifs” with Marsela

Tom’s words of wisdom about my worry over losing control are: “Lisa, if anything goes wrong, you have the skills to deal with it.” This is true, and I keep practicing those skills so they’ll be ready when I need them. If my donkeys run towards either an RV or a ditch, I can remember that they are actually trained, and cue them to change course and do something safer.

It’s the same with software development. We constantly learn new skills so that we can deal with whatever new obstacles get in our way. We identify problems using retrospectives, and we try small experiments to chip away at those problems. As a team and personally, if I am confident that if we have good skills and tools at our disposal, we don’t need an illusion of control. Whatever happens next, my team and I are in a position to do something about it.

In his podcast, Amitai suggests that if we can accept feeling less in control, we might make better decisions. I think if we focus on continually learning new skills and tools, our confidence in our ability to adapt to the current situation is much more important than feeling in control.


3 comments on “The Illusion of Control

  1. Yeah – interesting. It kind of echoes something my PT has been teaching me. A lot of the things he works with me on I’m always afraid to fall doing. So he kind of taught me “how to fall” as a skill. If you know how to fall safely, you fear falling a lot less.

    Not sure if this same logic applies to the upcoming movie The Walk though. 😎

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