My post last week “Why do we think we’re different” “Why do we think we’re different” (about goal displacement, trained incapacity and functional stupidity) attracted an interesting comment that deserved a considered response. In the end that merited a new post, rather than a reply in the comments section. Here is the comment, followed by my response.
I don’t disagree with your basic premise nor your conclusion. Your arguments are logical and elegant, but I wonder if people hear the anti-ISO 29119 group as saying “Don’t bother having process,” and “I’m too smart to need a checklist” (ala Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto”).
Worse yet, the people arguing against the standard the loudest are not the common tester but the already heavily active in the community of testers. I described it as a “consultant’s war” because consultants seem the most active in the community are often consultants.
As a people problem, it seems both sides have a great deal of apathy outside of perhaps 1/100th of the testing community. How do we change that? The best argument in the world will have no affect if most people are apathetic. This is the problem I struggle with and not just around the standards but around testing as a career. I would love to see any insight you have around the problem, assuming you see it as a problem.
JCD raises some interesting points and I am grateful for that.
I do need to keep thinking about the danger that people hear the Stop29119 campaigners as saying “don’t bother having process”. That is not the message I want to get across. I would phrase it as “beware of the dangers of prescriptive processes”, i.e. processes that spell out in detail each step. These may be required in some contexts, but not in software development or testing, where their value has been hugely overstated.
However, processes are required. The tricky problem is finding the sweet spot between providing sufficient guidance and ensuring appropriate standardisation on the one hand, and, on the other hand, going into excessive detail and preventing practitioners from using their judgement and initiative in a complex setting.
Similarly, checklists do have their place. They are important, but of limited value. They take you only so far. I certainly don’t decry them, but I do deplore excessive dependence on them at the expense, again, of judgement and initiative. I don’t disagree with the crux of Gawande’s book, though I do have reservations about the emphasis, or maybe it’s just with the way the book has been promoted. I’m also doubtful about his defintion of complexity.
I agree with what Gawande is saying here in The Checklist Manifesto.
It is common to misconceive how checklists function in complex lines of work. They are not comprehensive how-to guides, whether for building a skyscraper or getting a plan out of trouble. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals. And by remaining swift and usable and resolutely modest, they are saving thousands upon thousands of lives.
I would quibble about building skyscrapers being a complex activity. I would call it highly complicated. I’d prefer to stick to the Cynefin definition of complexity, which is reserved for situations where there is no obvious causality; cause and effect are obvious only in hindsight. Nevertheless, I do like Gawande’s phrase that checklists are “quick and simple tools to buttress the skills of expert professionals”.
You’re right about this being a consultants’ war, but I don’t see how it could be anything else. It’s hard to get new ideas through to people who are doing the real work, grafting away day to day. Some testers are certainly apathetic, but the bigger issues are time and priorities. Campaigning against ISO 29119 is important, but it’s unlikely to be urgent for most people.
When I was a permanent test manager I didn’t have the time to lift my head and take part in these debates. Working as a contract test manager isn’t much better, though at least it’s possible, in theory, to control time between contracts.
I think that places some responsibility on those who can campaign to do so. If enough people do if for long enough then those testers who are less publicly visible, and lay people, are more likely to stumble across arguments that will make them question their assumptions. The lack of public defence of the standard from ISO has meant that anyone searching for information about ISO 29119 is now very likely to come across serious arguments against the standard. That might tilt the balance against general acceptance of the standard as The Standard. A few more people might join the campaign. Some organisations that might have adopted the standard may think better. It could all have a cumulative effect.
I’m working on the idea of a counter to ISO 29119. It wouldn’t be an attempted rival to ISO 29119. Nor would it be an anti-standard. Many organisations will adopt the standard because they want to seem responsible. That would be doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
What I am thinking of doing is documenting the links between the requirements of the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the Information Systems Audit & Control Association (and maybe other regulatory sources) with a credible alternative to the traditional, document heavy approach, showing how it is possible to be entirely responsible and accountable without going down the ISO 29119 dead end.
It’s a matter of explaining that there are viable and valid choices, something that is in danger of being hidden from public view by the arrival of an ISO standard intended to cover the whole of software testing. Checklists could well play a role in this.
I smiled at the suggestion that opponents of ISO 29119 might believe they’re too smart to need a checklist. I can see why some people might think that. However, I, like most ISO 29119 opponents I suspect, am acutely aware of the limits of my knowledge and competence. Excessive reliance on checklists and standards create the illusion, the delusion, that testers are more competent, professional and effective than they really are. I prefer a spot of realistic humility. Buttressing skill is something I can appreciate; supplanting skill is another matter altogether, and ISO 29119 goes too far in that direction.