Control and confusion – misunderstandings about governance

My recent blog about ISO29119 and the discussion I started at the Software Testing Club sparked some very thought provoking contributions.

I’ve decided to return to this topic because I think there is a unhealthy gulf between those who equate professionalism with formal standards, and those who know that in software testing professionalism and these formal standards aren’t comfortable allies; in fact they can be in opposition.

I fall into the latter camp, but I do believe that we should be making more effort to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to move away from formal standards and a heavyweight approach to documentation while maintaining a highly responsible and professional approach. The intellectual case has been won convincingly, but I don’t think we have yet won the political, organisational battle. That will require clearer links to the needs of auditors and regulators than most testers currently have.

My experience tells me that vague guesses and unchallenged assumptions are often the sole basis for massively costly and time-consuming process models and governance regimes.

In this piece I want to start my journey into the field of testing governance by looking at some damaging confusion surrounding the terminology and the concepts.

Documenting Quality Governance Control for Management Accountability

Companies often mix up accountability, governance, control, quality and documentation. They all get jumbled up together without clear distinctions and without understanding how they are linked.

The words are often lumped together in ludicrous combinations that look impressive but mean nothing. The meaningless title of this section is a poor attempt at satire. It probably looks uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has worked in big corporate IT.

Companies act on the vague assumption that if they smother projects with governance and documentation they will produce accountability and control, thus generating quality. That assumption is illogical nonsense, but organisations produce vast reams of standards and processes (sorry, Process Models) based on the delusion. Sadly, the cost of generating these millstones is only a fraction of the cost in development time, lost opportunities and shoddy products that result.

Quality is a goal. Actually, it isn’t really a goal per se. It’s something you need to provide in order to satisfy whoever is paying the bills. The other stuff is just detail. Accountability, governance, control and documentation are various means you might employ to help achieve your goals, but the connections between them and the effect they have are widely misunderstood.

Confusing all these concepts makes it far harder to produce high quality products. So I want to get some some things off my chest and tackle some of the myths of corporate IT that frequently go unchallenged.

Time to attack some myths

Governance is not the same as control and neither does governance produce control

Project governance is a framework for managing projects and integrating them into the wider business. Governance helps us control the use we make of time, money and assets, and to a certain extent it helps manage people. That’s all important, but it’s also relatively straightforward. Controlling events is infinitely more difficult, and that’s what we really yearn to do.

Governance has only a limited impact on future events, yet we pretend that if we get the governance right then we’ll be able to shape the future too. Our ability to control events is severely constrained because these events are the product of an uncertain future, with many influences and pressures that we cannot predict with a realistic level of confidence.

The danger is that we confuse governance and control then make bold, confident predictions based on the naïve belief that our mastery of governance will allow us to control the future.

We are using our regime of governance to control those things that we can control, and deceive ourselves that we are thus controlling the future. We end up controlling plans and documents. We shape our perception of reality to try and fit it to our plans. The underlying reality drifts further and further out of our control and we never acknowledge the problem, even when frantic re-planning is required. We kid ourselves that all that happened was our plans were wrong, people made mistakes and we were unlucky.

Achieving even the limited control over events that is possible requires us to be realistic and honest. The future is uncertain. Acknowledging the huge level of uncertainty in software development is realistic, and makes it easier to adapt. Pretending that governance provides true control has precisely the opposite effect. It introduces a layer of fog and documentation that can hide the reality. It dulls our ability to anticipate, detect and respond to changes in that reality.

Accountability does not entail tight control

Well, control and accountability should be independent, though they are often tied up together. Accountability does not require tight control of people. Weak managers, who lack confidence in themselves and their team, try to compensate by micro-managing the project.

The usual weapon of choice for micro-managers is a rigid application of governance. They obsess about the aspects of the project that they can control. The result is that the team is distracted by “managing” the managers, to keep them sweet, rather than focussing on the real work.

Accountability means being responsible for outcomes, and for the use made of people and resources. It should not mean beating people up. If one is managing responsibly, and getting the most out of the people, then that often means relaxing control. It means putting good people, with appropriate skills in the right position to do a good job, then protecting them from the external pressures and distractions that distract them. If managers are adding to those pressures and distractions they should question their approach.

I was recently asked whether I was confident that I knew exactly what my team was going to do. I replied that I had no idea, not in any detail anyway. There wasn’t time to familiarise myself with that level of detail. I trusted them and was entirely confident that they knew what they had to do, when they had to do it, and what they needed from each other. I was accountable for the outcome. Accountability does not mean being able to give a detailed account of everything that is going on.

Documentation and information are not synonyms

Managers need the right information at the right time to take the decisions they need. That doesn’t mean that the project should be constantly churning out documentation. Information does not have to be contained in documents, still less in formal “work products”. Likewise, a mass of verbiage, dubious metrics and irrelevant garbage do not add up to information.

Formal documentation is often produced mindlessly because it is mandated by the standards. I’ve been astonished at how much time is spent producing documents that run to 50 pages or more and contain virtually no information that will aid the project. Boilerplate documents are often the enemy, not the source, of information.

Documentation produces neither control nor accountability

If we accept that documentation is not the same as information then we can ease up on the documentation and take a more sceptical look at the justification for producing it.

Documentation is not an absolute good. In a sense it is a contingent requirement, like any other. If you are developing a safety critical application, or software associated with the production of drugs that will be covered by the US Food & Drugs Administration then you will need far more detailed documentation than will be necessary for a straightforward e-commerce application.

Companies often produce documentation in the belief that “the auditors will need to see it”. If that is the only justification for the documentation then it is not needed. I am serious.

Auditors report on whether the management, or application, has controls in place that are appropriate to the risk, and whether these controls are actually being applied. If the documentation is produced only for the auditors then it has no value at all.

Managers look daft in front of smart, professional auditors when they admit that they have been wasting time and money producing shelfware “for the auditors”. It is certainly possible that the management should have been using potentially valuable documentation but they ignored it, but that is a separate failing.

I’ve written other blog posts that go into this in more detail. See “when documentation is a waste of time” and also “testers are like auditors” for a more general explanation of my perspective on auditing.

Neither governance nor control produce quality

The almost wilful confusion of quality with control really bugs me. Few managers ever say; “forget quality, we can live with an application that is a crock of crap provided we hit our dates and budget”.

However, they can get away with setting up a tough regime of project governance they hope will ensure they will get the dates and costs right, whilst assuming incorrectly that the rigid structure will produce a quality product.

I’ve seen these dreadful structures given Orwellian names like “Quality Management System” that mean the exact opposite of what they promise. They drive quality down because good people are producing shelfware rather than software, test plans rather than effective test preparation. The iteration that good software requires is suppressed in order to permit a neat, structured project plan.

Eventually the wheels come off such projects when the changes to requirements come in, or the users realise that the design doesn’t meet their real needs. Such disruption to the project is unacceptable, so it’s time to steamroller the users, and silently accept that this time quality wasn’t such a high priority; the costs and schedule were more important.

At the post mortem the dishonesty inherent in the process is ignored. There is a pretence that someone screwed up, or events conspired to defeat us, or that we were unlucky. There’s no admission that the approach was flawed, and that the consequences were an inevitable result of our decisions. Next time it will be ok because there’s no reason to assume they’ll be as unlucky again.

So what now?

That’s a good question. I’ve had a bit of a rant, but now I’m feeling the urge to be constructive. Please don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that project governance, control (and controls), documentation and accountability are all important. It matters when people don’t really think about the concepts and mix them all up. These concepts need to be applied intelligently and with a sensitive regard for the context. They need to be applied so that they help an organisation to use IT more effectively and efficiently, rather than act as a drag and distraction.

Traditional projects often seem to value governance, documentation and illusory control above all else. Such a mindset makes it natural to respond to the perceived needs of stakeholders, auditors and regulators by mandating an approach of extreme documentation and rigid adherence to inflexible standards

I’ve started to think that many testers need clearer advice and guidance about what constitutes a responsible, professional link between development projects, testing, governance and control. I suspect that managers of developers and testers often feel uncomfortably exposed when they move away from traditional approaches, uncertain whether they are doing it right. The temptation is to take unhelpful elements of the heavyweight approach with them as a purely defensive measure.

Can they do real, effective testing without a mountain of documentation and rigid standardised processes, and also be confident they can demonstrate they are doing it right? Of course, but we’ve got to show them how, and clarify the links between testing, governance and accountability. It’s time for me to give this some serious thought.


2 thoughts on “Control and confusion – misunderstandings about governance

  1. Excellent post, James.

    Unfortunatly, what you describe happens in too many organizations.
    Copy and paste to produce tons of pages becomes usual, and micro-management empties team of sense of accomplishment.
    Results are that acting “by the book” you are “doing it right” and cannot be blamed for results or failures… “manager said”.

    I think all these finally end disregarding customer needs and expectations, as the focus is on process.
    A process should be considered as a guide, not as an armor neither as a corset. Also unfortunatly, some auditors don’t take this into account, and they ask for greater details and complexity in processes and their outputs.

    Another consequence of the confusion is that testing activities in software development processes are considerer to “inject” quality into resultant products. And testers are not magicians, just testers. If they act professionally, they deliver valuable information for decision making, to project managers and fundamentally to customers and other stakeholder.


    • Thank you Pilar. It was good to get such a quick comment. I know that this is a rather niche subject. It’s important, but it’s hardly glamorous or exciting. I don’t suppose this post will set any records for hits, even for my blog.

      I thought it was worth writing as part of the process of thinking my way through this issue. Any feedback is welcome. Blogs are great for that. One can put out half formed ideas, get feedback and then refine one’s ideas.

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