Embracing a mentality of prediction – evaluation – exploration

A while ago I started to play a little game when doing test-driven development:

Every time I run my microtest, I predict the outcome. Will the test fail or pass?
When my prediction was right, I continue. When it was not right, I investigate and explore why my code behaved differently than I thought it would be. I will not simply go on and poke around (though I do that frequently, too) but really try to understand why my expectation of the code’s behavior was different to reality.

When I found the cause for the wrong prediction, I try to learn from reality and grow my knowledge about the code. Sometimes I not only find gaps in my knowledge but also flaws in my work process or in the way I do things.

I found this game to be a very powerful tool of learning. I’m still not very seasoned in doing it, but it’s something I want to practice more often.

Today I realized that I can not only use this technique for TDD, but for many different things in software development and also life. We are constantly predicting what will happen, what consequences our actions will have:

Will my code work after merging that branch?
What will change when I change this setting?
Will I catch the bus when I go now?
Will I need an umbrella today?
How will my co-worker react to the feedback I give him?

We constantly predict, but I usually don’t evaluate the outcome in reality and explore the reasons when my prediction was wrong. In not doing the evaluation and exploration, I probably miss a powerful tool to consciously learn and instead stick with a very unconscious and probably tedious trial-and-error approach.

That’s something I want to change: What will happen when I start to notice the predictions I’m doing all the time, when I consciously evaluate their outcome and explore why my prediction was wrong?

My prediction is that I will not only learn faster and become more aware of myself and the things around me, but might also find flaws in my thinking, in the way I approach things and in beliefs I hold.

Sounds like quite some effort and also a bit scary, but I want to try it out.

I would love to hear your thoughts on that!

Are you sure about what you know?

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent¬†… The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

David Dunning [NYT]

Ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger-Effect? If not, you might want to change that – it’s a great scientific foundation to make fun of people who – for example – use buzzwords, obviously without knowing their meaning. It also gives you some academic ammunition when complaining about the technical incompetence of management, project lead or sales. By using the term and throwing it towards whoever you think is your opponent you can show your superiority. And isn’t it fun to insult people when they don’t even notice being insulted? Clearly a proof of your intellectual dominance, because you don’t fit into the group of incompetent people, do you? You are clever, reflected and open-minded enough not to fall to the traps of human psyche, aren’t you?

For those who don’t want to read through the linked Wikipedia-article, have this (very simplified) description:

The Dunning-Kruger-Effect describes a psychological phenomenon that people who are low-skilled in a certain topic are the most likely to think they know a lot and are skilled at least “above average”. This is due to the fact that their lack of knowledge on a subject also means they can’t recognize how much they don’t understand.
A low-skilled person can overcome these effects by education and increase of knowledge on the topic.
The other side of the effect is, that highly skilled people are the most likely to underestimate their own competence and tend to be less confident about their expertise.


There’s a lot of information and commentary about the Dunning-Kruger-effect on the internet, often in combination with fingerpointing towards extreme examples of the phenomenon (you can read “Trump” between the lines here). Most of us have seen people whose lack of experience and knowledge on the subject they presented made us feel uneasy while they themselves seemed pretty confident and happy.
And I agree that it’s fun to watch the effect on others in its full glory, but if you calm down and think about it, it can suddenly become very serious (I guess that’s the reason why the work of Prof. Dunning and Kruger was awarded by the Ig Nobel Prize¬†for “first making people laugh, then think”).

The problem is – this is not a phenomenon reserved for others. And it’s not something only present in ridiculous and extreme examples.

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