… something on Responsibility, Dog Poop, and the Six Stages of Debugging

Feb 10 · 5 min read

Around the time I learnt of The Dolphin Model, I had to make visits to what I would describe as a mostly dull, bleak, backwater Government office.

Almost the only interesting thing about this office was a poster on the wall, and that the staff talked about Pointers and Scoopers.

The poster on the wall asked if you were a Pointer or a Scooper, which is why the staff talked in these terms, it also had a cartoon drawing of people stood around pointing at the ‘fresh’ doings of a dog, also in the picture.

The ‘point’ was that many people, when they see a problem, will just stand around and point at it. They may also complain and moan, gripe and grouse, but they won’t do anything constructive about it.

This can easily be Learned Helplessness, but that’s another topic.

These are the “Pointers”.

The “Scoopers” are the ones that see a problem and deal with it. And then they can move on. Job Done.

The Dog Poop Initiative

It took me years to find the source of these phrases, and indeed the poster. At one point I found an oblique reference to Pointers and Scoopers in an online school newsletter in New Zealand, but not where it had come from.

Eventually, two years ago, I found, on Amazon, a book, called, The Dog Poop Initiative, and ordered it immediately. To some extent it is a sales pitch for it’s author Kirk Weisler’s consultancy, but it’s worth a read .

It describes how a dog has done it’s business of a kids’ football pitch but how all the Pointers attempt to carry on playing around it, though inevitably the ball rolls through the mess at times, until the Hero arrives, the Scooper, and deals with the mess and they can all live happily ever after.

The Missing Actor

Of course the missing Actor in all of this, is the owner of the dog that allowed it to do it’s business in the first place. I shall refer to them as The Pooper.

They have a lot to answer for, and so I think we should talk about, and ask:

“Are you a Pooper, a Pointer or a Scooper?”

The Scoopers are taking Responsibility, a term we’ll come back to later.


As I work in Software, and have been a Professional coder (or perhaps, code cleaner) for some time, I’m very familiar with the whole process of developing software and it’s vaguries.

Over the course of my career, I’ve found that I tend to go and sort out problems in codebases, whereas many around me would allow things to fester, resulting in the degredation of the codebase around them. This is entropy at work , which is a measure of disorder— if you don’t actively work against it the Law of Entropy says disorder will take over. And this can kill software, gradually over time.

The Six Stages of Debugging

I’ve been through the Six Stages of Debugging myself, which doesn’t include the “What can possibly go wrong?” stage which triggered the Six Stages in the first place. And it goes without saying, that at each stage you can also say “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”.

The Six Stages are:

  • “That can’t happen.”
  • “That doesn’t happen on my machine.”
  • “That shouldn’t happen.”
  • “Why does that happen?”
  • “Oh, I see.”
  • “How did that ever work?”

This nicely describes the stages a reticent developer must pass through before they accept that there is a problem caused by the changes they have made.

If you are a developer, or ever have been, it may sound eerily familiar. Going through stage like this may also sound familiar if you have ever grieved for someone.

The Five Stages of Grief

You may well be familiar with The Five Stages of Grief, defined by Kübler-Ross in 1969. This describes the number of stages that a person must pass through when coming to terms with, usually, death, but also other personal shock.

denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance

Recently on a training course we discussed why it is always best to just Thank someone for some feedback in the heat of the moment, and reflect on it in your own time, and not find yourself reacting in anger to what may well be a very valuable piece of advice. If the feedback is a shock to you, you may well go though a version of the Five Stages of Grief, before acceptance.

The Responsibility Process

A few years ago, I read a book called The Responsibility Process by Christopher Avery, which I can thoroughly recommend.

The title didn’t sit well with me to begin with — why is it a Process, not a Model — but I have realised that like the Stages of Grief, to get to the point where you feel and take responsibility for something, you have to pass through the other stages each time.

The Responsibility Process describes six levels, much like the debugging model, but also one to the side, which is Quit —I’ve had enough — which can be reached from any other level.

The level below Responsibility is called Obligation. You are obliged to deal with a problem, you don’t necessarily want to.

The important thing to note is that Responsibility can only be taken, not given. If someone ‘gives’ you responsibility for something and you’re not keen, or don’t want it, you are actually in the state of Obligation.

This is why the model is not a management technique — you can’t force someone else to take ownership of something.

Only *you* can decide you want to take Responsibility for something, no-one else. It has to come from within you.

Being in the state of Responsibility is being in the “Can Do” state. It is about “Owning” a problem and gladly taking on the task of solving it.

Catch-Sooner Game

Also described in the book is the Catch-Sooner game. This is a self-coaching technique. It is about catching and calling yourself out when you find youself, eg, denying there’s a problem, or blaming someone else. It is about calling it out and trying to move beyond that sooner, next time.

It is also about accepting that this will happen — that everyone is human — but that you can forgive yourself and move on.


I found The Responsibility Process a really powerful book. Having come across the Dog Poop Initiative and related to that many years ago, I found that it really resonated.

It helped to explain why I repeatedly found myself prepared to go and Scoop up problems that those around me just pointed at (and often, just laughed).

Take ownership of your environment, take Responsibility, it’s an incredibly empowering place to be, and has demonstrably been a differentiator to my career since. I deliver stuff because it’s ready, not because an arbitrary deadline has approached.


Written by

@TheCodeCleaner agile consultant, committed clean coder, slayer of complexity and harbinger of tea. Remourner. Now 'part of the team' at @RedGateProdDev

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