The Sally–Anne Skill

The Sally–Anne test is a test that helps psychologists gauge a subject’s social cognitive development. Here’s the test:

The Sally–Anne test

This is Sally. Sally has a basket.

This is Anne. Anne has a box.

Sally has a marble. She puts the marble into her basket.

Sally goes out for a walk.

Anne takes the marble out of the basket and puts it into the box.

Now Sally comes back. She wants to play with her marble.

Where will Sally look for her marble?

By Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith – Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?, Cognition, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53202493

The point of the test is whether the subject can understand what Sally will do, given the information to which she has access. Of course, the subject knows that the marble has been moved into the box, but Sally would presumably have no reason to believe that the marble wouldn’t still be in her basket, where she had left it.

(Yes, I know that it matters how suspicious Sally is of Anne, but that’s not the aspect of the story that I want to focus on today.)

At work, I see the Sally–Anne problem all the time. Lots of people struggle with it. I struggle with it myself sometimes.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

A customer calls me; they’re having a problem. They’ve had it for several months, and it’s killing them. I’ve seen many problems like this before, so I prescribe a sequence of steps that I’m confident will lead to a solution.

The steps seem straightforward enough to me, but the customer doesn’t execute them. It’s hard to tell whether they can’t, or they just won’t, but it doesn’t make any difference because, for whatever reason, it means that they don’t.

I grow frustrated because I feel like the answer is within their grasp and they’re wasting both their time and mine by not following my prescription. Do they want to be stuck with this problem forever? Are they just idiots?

Situations like this make it easy for frustration to escalate into anger. But anger reduces everybody’s chances of success.

Dissolving the impasse begins with understanding what the customer sees—what information they both do and do not have access to. It may appear irrational to you when they look for a marble in the basket, but it starts to make sense when you understand the situation from their point of view.

When I catch myself in the frustration loop, I remind myself that it’s preposterous of me to assume that the people around me would automatically believe ideas that have taken me decades to learn. I’m not necessarily going to change their beliefs on the basis of just a lecture or two. Especially if what I’m saying contradicts their training—which, in my line of work, happens a lot.

It’s scenarios like this that inspired my friend Anjo Kolk to say that performance problems are 90% political and 10% technical. It’s why there’s a 10-chapter section called “Politics” in my How to Make Things Faster book, and it’s why the whole book is based on stories instead of formulas.


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4 responses to “The Sally–Anne Skill”

  1. Erik van Roon Avatar

    Every word you said here is true.
    But what makes it frustrating in my opinion is not merely the fact they won’t follow the advise given. After all who made me the guy who can dictate what people should do.

    The frustrating part is the fact that the customer has a problem that for some reason they can’t seem to solve, so they hire an expert to have a look at it.
    You say “it’s preposterous of me to assume that the people around me would automatically believe ideas that have taken me decades to learn”, but the fact that you spent those decades to learn those ideas are exactly why they’ve hired you in the first place.
    Sure, you could nevertheless be wrong too, so by all means get a second opinion from another expert.
    But don’t tell me after x years “yeah, I know you said that but despite the fact we paid a considerable sum of money to hire your expertise we didn’t believe you”.
    It’s like going to the doctor because you’re almost dead and then don’t follow his advise because you’ve seen this youtube video 😢

    1. Martin Haltmayer Avatar
      Martin Haltmayer

      Hi Erik, this is the time for the story of the consultancy ninja.

      What usually happens in a company that has a technical problem is, that there *are* employees that are busy about this problem, and they very often have a very clear understanding what to do to solve the problem. However, they are not listened to by their boss because “it can’t be that my employees are smarter than I am”. Management complains about the problem and that it is not solved and they hire a consultant.

      If this consultant is a “consultant ninja”, s/he will do the following:

      (1) Go to the employees that *know* the problem and the solution and *listen* to them the full story.

      (2) Write a nice presentation how to solve the problem, together with a decent bill for her/his efforts.

      (3) Now we have a win-win-win-win situation: (a) the boss can present a solution to management that will work. (b) Management will accept the solution because it cost a shit load of money so it must be good. (c) The employees finally are listened to, and their suggestions will be implemented. (d) Last but not least the consultant ninja can live pretty well on his paid invoice.

      In the end, he was acting as a catalyst: not spending her/himself but enabling or promoting a process instead.

    2. Jared Still Avatar
      Jared Still

      Probably most folks that have contracted to provide performance advice have run into the situation where the client does not apply the advice. Not being an exception, I have experienced this a few times.
      Some of the reasons for clients ignoring the advice:
      * The person that requested the engagement is not one of the technical staff that works on the database or system,
      A manager may want to use you to gauge the performance of DBAs. Or perhaps there is a feeling that the DBAs are not doing their job properly.
      The DBA staff will certainly be aware of this, and may not be too cooperative, and may not feel compelled to follow your advice.

      * They don’t like your answer
      Despite the fact that you have told them exactly why an application appears slow, the client does not want to believe it. What they want is for you to tell them how to fix the database to make it ‘work properly’.
      It may be that the database is performing quite well, but the issues are elsewhere; usually application code and/or configuration.
      Even though you may offer solutions to at least partially mitigate the issues, the client is not interested, because they want you to “fix the database”

      Quite a bit more could be written about this, but this summarizes many occasions where I experienced a client that does not want to apply good advice

  2. Martin Haltmayer Avatar
    Martin Haltmayer

    Gary, thanks for your interesting thoughts. I knew that Sally-Anne-decision in psychology. If you want to find out if a child is old enough to *lie*, you show them this story and ask the child, “Where will Sally look for her marble?” People that *cannot* lie like children < 2 years (usually) or some autist persons will say, "Sally will look for her marble in Anne's box", while persons that are *capable* of lying will say, "Sally will look for her marble in her basket" because they can imagine themselves in the observed (Sally's) point of view.

    So the political establishment in the company are not telling you the full truth. They are withholding decision/action relevant information from you effectively preventing *everybodies* (including *their*) success. Maybe you show them your story, charging a higher management-consulting fee, not a technical consulting fee. They may listen *then* because the wallet is the most sensitive part of the human/company body.

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