Principles Not Rules, part 1

[This week I presented At EuroSTAR 2015. My subject? How testing can be well governed without recourse to standards, and how an emphasis on principles, rather than rules, empowers the tester, freeing them to perform better testing than a likely to be achieved under a command and control regime. This series of posts is drawn from my presentation notes.]

The Empowerment Paradox

Testing, as commonly practiced, has lost its way. But I’m jumping ahead. Let me explain.

For much of my working life, I have been a consultant. One of the benefits that this affords is the opportunity to meet lots of people. And I enjoy speaking to people about their testing: how they approach it, why they think they’re doing it, what they feel they get out of it.

On one notable occasion, whilst presenting to a PMI forum – a group of project and programme managers – I played a game of word association and asked “What’s the first word that springs to mind when I say ‘Testing'”. “Stinks” was the overwhelming response.

And to be brutally honest with you: “stinks” is the safe for work version.

This can be a hard message for a tester to hear. We often bemoan the fact that many of our colleagues don’t “get” testing, or that our stakeholders don’t seem to understand the value of what we do. Unfortunately, in my experience, when the customer of a service doesn’t see the value in it, this often means that there IS NO VALUE in it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that my experience of testing has been universally stinky. I’m a context driven tester, and many of my best experiences of testing were on small projects where we were very much context driven: we sought to understand what our projects needed to know and designed testing to respond to those needs. And it worked.

Unfortunately, something seems to happen at scale. When projects are grouped and we seek “consistency”, or when we work within large organizations that promote some form of standardization, we start to take decisions away from those people most firmly rooted in project context. We take the decisions away from those people most likely to make good decisions about how to test.

I’m no exception! One of my first attempts at scaling CDT was to write a handbook that mandated practices often associated with context driven testing. The results were horrible. I had made a mistake that I see people making time again: mistaking CDT for a bag of practices. It isn’t. It’s a bag of ANY practices, and more than that: it’s a philosophy that empowers individuals to make their own choices about testing.

Unfortunately, empowerment is hard. The very structures that put one person in a position to “empower” another will often undermine that attempt at empowerment. This paradox brings me to my current challenge…

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