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Coffee machine syndrome

posted 8 Dec 2013, 08:40 by Albert Witteveen
Originally posted June the 13th 2013


Apparently the medieval book “The Secret” by Francesco Petrarch  discusses the following assertions:

“The assertion that humans experience misery because they do not sufficiently desire not to do so”.

We don't do something about a situation we don't like because we don't actually want to badly enough. This in my view often still applies. Apparently in the middle ages they already experienced what I tend to call the coffee machine syndrom.

Now, in the middle ages people in Europe did not have coffee machines, let alone coffee. This is why it’s called the dark ages. But what I call the coffee machine syndrome is the tendency of people to complain, but take no action.

I first started calling this the coffee machine syndrome a long time ago in one of my first experiences working in a large company. We had just sort of formed a team. The atmosphere was good, teammates got along fine and for some reason we formed the habit of occasionally hang out at the coffee machine for a break. And of course we would discuss the situation at work. We were a team of testers and testers are good at complaining and seeing flaws in things. Maybe that’s what draws us into testing. So naturally, we bitched and moaned about everything that was going on in the project, the organisation and sometimes the rest of the world.

Oddly enough though, we were all drawn to this, the best complaining was about things in the project. That was until I naively suggested something weird: namely that we do something about it.

The project had its flaws, although I now can’t even remember what they were. But in the entire project there was a good atmosphere. Nothing was blocking us from discussing this with the project manager and propose some changes. So that’s what I suggested. When I actually suggested this, the faces changed. It was as if was taking their favorite toy away. If we fix things, then what do we have left to complain about?

After a few ‘yeah, but’s’ the break at the coffee machine ended prematurely with people taking their coffee to their desk to finish it there. I had broken the magic. I ended up actually talking to the project manager. He was responsive and changes were made. Including some changes for me, where I got some extra responsibilities. So it seems the same as the assertion what we started with: ‘people don’t want change enough to do something about it’ should actually be ‘people prefer complaining over improvements for the sake of complaining’ …

Something else I learned quickly afterwards: I am part of this ‘people’ too. Yes I took initiative that time, but I too have a tendency to enjoy complaining at the coffee machine. In so many other situations and clients I noticed the same thing including how easy it is to join in. I am no expert but I believe a large part of this has to do with the built in need for humans to be part of the group. It makes you feel part of the group. This behaviour is not productive. It often serves as an excuse for why your team does not make too much progress.

I have even seen sometimes cases where it can get you into trouble. Sometimes an entire team thinks of itself as the only ones who ‘get it’ and all end up getting the boot. While they were busy complaining in their own circle, others in power started to question their value. Had they acted, the same people in power could have concluded that the team itself had value but that they had solve the issues to achieve the value.

So what can you do about it? The most important thing is to be aware of it. Complaining in a group feels good, but it does not improve neither the issue itself or your situation. Go ahead and join the group in doing so, but as soon as you start to repeat yourself ask yourself and the group: so what are we going to do about it? Usually what you can do about the issue is come up with a solution. Present a solution to those that will have to approve it.

Be sure you don’t go to them to complain and be negative. Go to them with a positive attitude. If you are just going to complain about issues to them, they will focus on you and not the problem! They will defend, rationalize the issue and try to make you feel more comfortable with the situation. By bringing them a solution and being positive you can get them in the right mindset to focus on the issue instead of handling you. As long as you only complain it is your problem not theirs and their only problem is you.

Why should you do anything about it? In my personal experience it has not only actually changed things for the better, it has gotten me ahead as well. There really are opportunities for most people to get ahead, but no one is going to point them out for you. As soon as you start helping management by providing them with solutions they’ll be more than happy to give you the room to grow.

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