Standards – a charming illusion of action

The other day I posted an article I’d written that appeared on the uTest blog a few weeks ago. It was a follow up to an article I wrote last year about ISO 29119. Pmhut (the Project Management Hut website) provided an interesting comment.

”…are you sure that the ISO standards will be really enforced on testing – notably if they don’t really work? After all, lawyers want to get paid and clients want their projects done (regardless of how big the clients are).”

Well, as I answered, whether or not ISO 29119 works is, in a sense, irrelevant. Whether or not it is adopted and enforced will not depend on its value or efficacy. ISO 29119 might go against the grain of good software development and testing, but it is very much aligned with a hugely pervasive trend in bureaucratic, corporate life.

I pointed the commenter to an article I wrote on “Teddy Bear Methods”. People cling to methods not because they work, but because they gain comfort from doing so. That is the only way they can deal with difficult, stressful jobs in messy and complex environments. I could also have pointed to this article “Why do we think we’re different?”, in which I talk about goal displacement, our tendency to focus on what we can manage while losing sight of what we’re supposed to be managing.

A lesson from Afghanistan

I was mulling over this when I started to read a fascinating looking book I was given at Christmas; “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” by Gerard Russell, a deep specialist in the Middle East and a fluent Arabic and Farsi speaker.

The book is about minority religions in the Middle East. Russell is a former diplomat in the British Foreign Office. The foreword was by Rory Stewart, the British Conservative MP. Stewart was writing about his lack of surprise that Russell, a man deeply immersed in the culture of the region, had left the diplomatic service, then added;

”Foreign services and policy makers now want ‘management competency’ – slick and articulate plans, not nuance, deep knowledge, and complexity.”

That sentence resonated with me, and reminded me of a blistering passage from Stewart’s great book “The Places in Between”, his account of walking through the mountains of Afghanistan in early 2002 in the immediate aftermath of the expulsion of the Taliban and the NATO intervention.

Rory Stewart is a fascinating character, far removed from the modern identikit politician. The book is almost entirely a dispassionate account of his adventures and the people whom he met and who provided him with hospitality. Towards the end he lets rip, giving his brutally honest and well-informed perspective of the inadequacies of the western, bureaucratic, managerial approach to building a democratic state where none had previously existed.

It’s worth quoting at some length.

“I now had half a dozen friends working in embassies, thinktanks, international development agencies, the UN and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and in a year’s time they would have been moved to Iraq or Washington or New York.

Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan) ‘The creation of a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law’. They worked twelve- or fourteen- hour days, drafting documents for heavily-funded initiatives on ‘democratisation’, ‘enhancing capacity’, ‘gender’, ‘sustainable development,’ ‘skills training’ or ‘protection issues’. They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees – often in international law, economics or development. They came from middle class backgrounds in Western countries and in the evenings they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about corruption in the Government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their 4WDs outside Kabul because they were forbidden to do so by their security advisers. There were people who were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural areas of Afghanistan. But such people were barely fifty individuals out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90% of the population of Afghanistan lived…

Their policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organisations, even when they were mutually contradictory…

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language…

Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organisation long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”

Stewart’s experience and insight, backed up by the recent history of Afghanistan, allow him to present an irrefutable case. Yet, in the eyes of pretty much everyone who matters he is wrong. Governments and the military are prepared to ignore the evidence and place their trust in irrelevant and failed techniques rather than confront the awful truth; they don’t know what they’re doing and they can’t know the answers.

Vast sums of money, and millions of lives are at stake. Yet very smart and experienced people will cling on to things that don’t work, and will repeat their mistakes in the future. Stewart, meanwhile, is very unlikely to be allowed anywhere near the levers of power in the United Kingdom. Being right isn’t necessarily a great career move.

Deep knowledge, nuance and complexity

I’m conscious that I’m mixing up quite different subjects here. Software development and testing are very different activities from state building. However, both are complex and difficult. Governments fail repeatedly at something as important and high-profile as constructing new, democratic states, and do so without feeling the need to reconsider their approach. If that can happen in the glare of publicity is it likely that corporations will refrain from adopting and enforcing standards just because they don’t work? Whether or not they work barely matters. Such approaches fit the mindset and culture of many organisations, especially large bureaucracies, and once adopted it is very difficult to persuade them to abandon them.

Any approach to testing that is based on standardisation is doomed to fail unless you define success in a way that is consistent with the flawed assumptions of the standardisation. What’s the answer? Not adopting standards that don’t work is an obvious start, but that doesn’t take you very far. You’ve got to acknowledge those things that Stewart referred to in his foreword to Gerard Russell’s book; answers aren’t easy, they require deep knowledge, an understanding of nuance and an acceptance of complexity.

A video worth watching

Finally, I’d strongly recommend this video of Rory Stewart being interviewed by Harry Kreisler of the University of California about his experiences and the problems I’ve been discussing. I’ve marked the parts I found most interesting.

34 minutes; Stewart is asked about applying abstract ideas in practice.

40:20; Stewart talks about a modernist approach of applying measurement, metrics and standardisation in contexts where they are irrelevant.

47:05; Harry Kreisler and then Stewart talk about participants failing to spot the obvious, that their efforts are futile.

49:33; Stewart says his Harvard students regarded him as a colourful contrarian. They believed that all Afghanistan needed was a new plan and new resources.

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