Outside the loop

There exists a loop. An environmental loop.

And in a simplistic way, you are either in it, or out of it. The loop I refer to is the loop that surrounds your team, or your project or your organisation or your current test case. The loop in which you work. Big or large. Wide or narrow. A loop. Maybe you belong to several loops. You will most certainly be in at least one.

If you are in a loop you often don’t see the problems with the loop. You are blind to the real reasons why your particular loop might not be working efficiently. You have narrow focus.

To see the problems with the loop, you often need to be outside the loop. Once outside the loop you can have fresh eyes and with a clear mind you can see the problems. You get a wider picture of the loop. You will see the problems, bottlenecks and efficiency gains. Some of the problems may seem obvious, as many problems are once understood, yet others may take a good deal of searching to be uncovered.

If you are outside of the loop you often see them quicker and easier than those people inside the loop. Look at how often a fresh set of eyes finds bugs in apps you’ve tested well; or when a customer reports a blatantly obvious bug the whole team missed.

Some problems persist in the same loop for many years. Often until fresh eyes point out the problems or the loop itself collapses under a mega weight of inefficiency and problems.

But I digress.

The problem with being outside the loop though is that you often cannot change the loop. And this is a common problem faced by many consultants (or new starters) who lack the pursuading skills needed to change the loop.

Consultants often point out the problems, notice the bottlenecks and clearly see a more efficient path of working, but because they are outside the loop they find it tough to change the loop. Resistance to change from outsiders is natural.

And it’s not just consultants who can point out problems. I’ve heard testers comment or berate other test teams for doing X when Y would be better. Do these testers work in a perfect loop themselves…really?

“You need to be outside the loop to see the loop. But when you are outside the loop it becomes much harder to influence the loop”

The above quote was taken from Patrick Neate’s awesome book “Where You’re At” (http://www.patrickneate.com/page.asp?p=3008).

So being inside the loop is hard work because you can’t see the problems as clearly. But being outside the loop is hard work too because you can’t always influence the loop.

So here’s some advice.

Don’t be afraid to step outside the loop…often. Taking a step back from your testing world and looking at the project as a whole is very valuable.

Taking a critical look at your project from another viewpoint is essential. Taking a massive long look at the whole organisation from a different perspective can be mind blowing.

  • Why not swap people from one team to the other after the project finishes (unless of course you find the all elusive high performance team of heros)?
  • Why not sit in on other team meetings?
  • Why not have floating testers who simply switch from team to team every week. This works wonders but takes a certain type of tester (and supporting team) to cope with it.
  • Why not share your observations and collaborate to improve? Why not help each other to see the problems?

I’ve seen this working first hand with major success. You’d be surprised at how valuable this can be. A real eye opener for some teams. Heart breaking for others.

Why not get a consultant in to help you with your testing work, but ensure you give them the mechanism to make changes? After all, it’s a royal waste of time paying a consultant and then not letting them change anything. Believe me though, this happens a lot. Consultant are valuable, you’ve just got to work with them closely.

Outside viewers, consultants or observers are not a bad thing. Not always anyway. They are loop observers. They will see things you cannot. They will notice problems you might never see. They are incredibly valuable. Work with these people to improve your process.

Be conscious of the fact that you CAN influence the loop. And provided with the right information there is no stopping you.

Observers can feed you the observations, you can make the changes.

And there’s no better collaboration effort than that.

Photo courtesy of Alex Kess (flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/akc77/)

Don’t judge people too quickly

In the testing world there often appears to be a lot of hatred, resentment, hostility and anger between various camps of people. Obviously this is not just limited to the testing world but it’s the world I mingle in, so it’s on my radar.

All too often people are jumping to conclusions about the way someone else tests or the theory they have come up with or the way they write their test cases or the fact they have released software without all tests passing yada yada. You’ve seen the blogs or forum posts where someone says you’re not doing it right unless you do this or why would anyone even consider doing that or this?

They can be quite offensive at times and more often than not, show a deep misunderstanding and lack of human respect. It’s a complicated world that we live in and too often we jump to conclusions, fed by our own experiences, the media, our testing heroes, our norms and cultural values, our education, our training, our mental states and models and our general outlook on life plus lots of other things too. We base our views about other people and their testing on our own worlds and ideas. Often that is all we can do. We see things as black and white. We don’t see past the immediate actions, words or theory to the person, their context or their world. It’s not that we can’t. It’s often just that we don’t/won’t.

And this hit home with me this week with a very personal story.

Over here in the UK we are in the middle of a very unusual (apparently) weather system that is dumping masses of snow, dropping the temp to well below freezing and generally causing a boat load of disruption. We aren’t prepared for the snow. We don’t have the correct training or the temperament to deal with this. We weren’t designed for this weather. We had no spec. No requirements. No user stories. We don’t know what to do.

So we panic buy food. We stop gritting roads (controversial). We issue severe weather warnings. We have the snow on the news 24 hours a day yet not really explain how to cope with it. We finally grind to a halt. And then we all complain about the snow. Even those who don’t have the ability to work from home and are down the park on their sledges.

And so last night with a heavy heart, a cup of hot tea and a faint feeling of wild panic I sat and watched the news on the TV. On it there was a policeman, don’t recall his name but some high ranking policeman, telling people to stay at home unless they absolutely have to go out as car accidents were causing chaos. There was some other bloke from the RAC telling us to stay at home and that more accidents and stuck cars is the last thing we need at the moment. Then there was some MP telling us all not to go out and not to panic buy. Stay in and keep warm they said. And with accidents at a record high and thousands of people having to sleep in cars over night due to being stuck it’s a sensible message they were all saying. Stay at home. Don’t risk your life and the lives of others by trying to get out.

Then came the typical happy story to end the bulletin focusing on a series of hardened English folk who braved the weather to open their local school. The teachers heroically fought their way to work. The kids did too. (oh how they must have cried when they saw the thousands of other kids on the news sledging around the hills of olde England). Everyone in the community pulled together, put their lives at risk and made the long and painful journey to school. “We shall teach these kids, no matter the weather” was the mantra they all chanted (note: this mantra bit might not be true).

So two dualities exist. Stay at home, put safety first. Make the journey, brave the danger, prove how tough you are, get your face on the TV.

And then this morning just as I optimistically dragged my wheelie bin out for collection I was nearly squashed by some idiot trying to get to work in an over sized Audi. With 30cm of snow on the ground, frozen over by a night of minus 5, the roads are literally like a skating rink. And here was this loony trying to get to work. After he had bounced of the pavement edge a few times, taken out next doors bin, crushed two miniature conifers, dragged a hedge for 10 metre and then spun around twice he finally settled in a large mound of sand, which lay nicely hidden under snow in someones front garden. My immediate reaction was to ensure this person was OK. He was. I then proceeded to berate him for stupidly putting his own life at risk, as well as mine and potentially too the Stubborn Cat. Poor cat.. (note: the cat was OK)

However I had jumped to conclusions too soon. I had assumed he was an idiot for ignoring all of the sage advice on the news. I had assumed he lived in a similar world to me, where he could work from home. Where he valued his life above journeying to the office. I had assumed he didn’t need to make this journey. As it happened he did need to make this journey. He was a local doctor (thankfully not mine) and he was on an emergency call; to a local resident. I felt foolish. I felt ignorant to other peoples needs. I learned a valuable lesson. I felt really bad.

So whilst I was digging out his car with the help of some neighbours, whilst he went by foot to the call, I was giving this situation some thought. I was milling it over. I associated it to testing and the behaviour I see too often in our community. I vowed I’d try to be more empathic. That I would try to understand that there are reasons people do things I disagree with. Reasons why people can’t do things certain ways. They have contexts and worlds I don’t occupy. And frankly, sometimes I’m glad I don’t occupy them.

I was wondering why all of these people make the journey out in the snow and realised that many had too, even if it meant putting their lives at risk. Some for good reasons like the doctor, or the nurse or the policeman or the parent visiting their sick child in hospital. Some for money. Some because they feel guilty for not trying. Others because their company would dock them a holiday day if they didn’t go in (made even more tragic by the fact that in this example the employer was the local council who didn’t clear the roads – note this wasn’t my local council…)

And so there are always reasons why people make, what seem on the surface, to be stupid decisions; but in the end most are based on some deeper context, understanding or reason, often which you will have no insight into. So to blindly say someone is stupid for sitting the ISEB exam is misplaced. To say someone is a fool for using record and playback automation is a mistake. And to say that someone is an idiot just for not using your BEST PRACTICE is frankly mad.

So my new years resolution is to be more understanding of other people and their situations and to help them, work with them, learn from them and in turn maybe impart some of my understandings to them. I’m going to respect other peoples opinions, even if they seem wrong.

We are a community of testers. And the more we push our own agendas at the expense of others, neglect the contexts of others in this complicated development world and don’t appreciate that software testing is a human activity, the more we are becoming fractured, incoherent, inconsistent and untrusted. And we can only sustain this level of negativity for so long before the whole thing collapses. And that, would be a very bad thing.