But it was the Perfect Storm! How to Unlearn your Learned Helplessness

“It was the perfect storm.” “That’s just the way things are here.” “That won’t work for us; we’re too different.” “It’s a catch-22.” “There’s too much history.” If you are hearing these phrases at your organization, chances are it may be suffering from learned helplessness. What is learned helplessness you ask? It’s basically when we have difficulty both identifying and unlearning bad habits. We can no longer see anything as an opportunity for change. We come up with reasons for why something can’t or isn’t working instead of coming up with ways it could work. We (sometimes) unknowingly derail any true progress because of the intrinsic helplessness we feel after being shut down so many times. We just cannot see a way out of this vicious spiral.

How does this happen? We THINK we want to change, but often we and our culture are our own worst enemy. And we are so trapped within we cannot see the entire picture – it’s like we have blinders on and have forgotten how to see without them. We know there’s something else out there, but we can’t possibly imagine how to get out of the spiral we’re in because what we tried before didn’t work, so why keep trying.

There was an experiment done in 1967 about this by Martin Seligman using dogs that received shocks. Some of the dogs could stop the shocks by pressing a level, others lever didn’t work. The dogs that learned that they couldn’t stop the shock, even when put in a different environment where they could stop it by jumping over a barrier, didn’t even try because they figured it wouldn’t do anything. They literally just endured the pain over even trying something else. It wasn’t until their legs were physically moved on separate occasions they would take action. There was an uncontrollable bad event, then a perceived lack of control, which led to generalized helpless behavior.

The first step to breaking out of these patterns is to identify that have learned to be helpless. If you actually notice yourself constantly saying the above phrases, and feel no control over them which causes you or the org to not try something new, you’re on the right track to identifying the problem. If something happens and you can identify the poor next steps that will be taken or predict what others will say, this is an indicator, too.

What comes after identifying you have a problem? Figuring out the WHY! This would be a great time to ask the 5 why’s to get to the root of the issue. It was the perfect storm? Why? Chances are it was something like…this person was out of the office, environments didn’t match, priorities changed at the last minute, a bug in the code that could only have been found if this one weird thing happened…and it did. Ask another why, and another, and another, and another. The root you’ll likely arrive at will be something like: we took a shortcut at one point, the culture forced it, we’re understaffed, priorities were not aligned…whatever the answer is write down the chain that led to it.

After looking at the chain, repeat the same process for some of the other problems the organization has faced. What other perfect storms are there? What other “that’s just the way it is, has been, always will bes”? “Because so-and-so said so…” (child humor story on that, when I was a child I heard it as “Soynso” and thought it was someone’s name – couldn’t figure out why I didn’t know Soynso since folks talked about him a lot). Are you coming to similar conclusions about root causes?

Most root causes come down to bad habits formed from poor decisions that are replicated because of the organizational culture. The further you get down these rabbit holes, the simpler the problems seem to look, but the more helpless you’ve learned to be because the issue that at the root was small is extrapolated to the extreme. You can’t get out of the spiral. Or can you?

Let’s agile this. Look at the root causes, look at the chain leading to them, and look at the problems they cause. Prioritize that backlog based on an economic framework. What is the smallest change you can make that will have the largest impact? OR what is the smallest change you can make to get started? In other words, what can you change tomorrow, by the end of the week, or by the end of the month? What is just one thing to start with? It looks less daunting now, right? Get your team involved, do this at a retrospective, and get folks behind the change. Be relentless about it. You’ve just taken a step toward empowerment and away from helplessness.

But Natalie, the change is so much higher up than me – it’s an organizational problem. Well, as Peter Drucker says, culture eats strategy for breakfast. The only way to change the culture is from within and you have to start somewhere. Get allies from above, gain their support, offer data, and most importantly create urgency! Most of the time we make this excuse we haven’t even asked for help. Back to economics, what is the cost of delay and how can you quantify it? How much is it costing you to not do this? This can be traced back to the initial perfect storm of a problem that the root cause caused directly or indirectly. If it was a true disruptive storm (that is referred to frequently by a certain release number, name, or customer name) that should turn some heads.

No, it won’t be easy. If it’s a culture problem, people may not listen. But if you can get some true allies that want to help make changes (maybe your friendly agile coaches) or if you can get your team behind you and SHOW the changes and their significance you will be on the right track. It’s definitely easier to say “that won’t work here,” but that’s certainly not getting you any closer to improvement. Unlearn your helplessness – you can do it and I can help!

24. September 2017 by Natalie Warnert
4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Well said!

  2. Great article. I think this is a very common situation and I’m only partially joking when I say that there could be people solving this problem as a full-time job.

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