With Cynefin, I can justify skepticism about inappropriate approaches and create better ones

As testers we need to better understand and be explicit about problems in testing that don’t have known, clear, or obvious solutions. Cynefin can help by transforming the way we, our teams, and our stakeholders think about testing problems.

Ben Kelly and James Christie has written very good blogs about Cynefin and testing. Liz Keogh was one of the first to write about Cynefin in development. At the bottom of this post, I have included a video with David Snowden and a link to an article I found interesting when I read it.

With this blog post I’m sharing elements of my own understanding of Cynefin and why I think it’s important. I think of Cynefin itself as a conceptual framework useful for comprehending dynamic and complex systems, but it is also a multi faceted “tool” which can help create context dependent conceptual frameworks, both tacit and explicit, so that we can better solve problems.

But before diving into that (and in particular explain what a conceptual framework is), I’d like to share something about my background.

Product design and the historic mistakes of software development

I used to study product design in university in the early 90’s. Creating new and innovative products does not follow obvious processes. Most engineering classes taught us methods and tools, but product design classes were different.

We were taught to get into the field, study real users in their real contexts, develop understandings of their problems, come up with prototypes and models of product ideas, and then try out these prototypes with the users.

Discussing an early draft of this post with James Christie, he mentioned that one of the historic mistakes of software development has been the assumption that it is a manufacturing process, whereas in reality it is far more like research and development. He finds it odd that we called it development, while at the same time refusing to believe that it really was a development activity.

SAFe, “the new black” in software delivery, is a good example of how even new methodologies in our industry are still based on paradigms rooted in knowledge about organizing manufacturing. “The Phoenix Project”, a popular novel about DevOps states on the back cover that managing IT is similar to factory management.

What I was taught back in the 90’s still help me when I try to understand why many problems remain unsolved despite hard work and many attempts on the opposite. I find that sometimes the wrong types of solutions are applied, solutions which don’t take into consideration the true nature of the issues we are trying to get rid of, or the innovations we’re trying to make.

Knight Capital Group, a testing failure

The case of Knight Capital Group is interesting from both innovation, risk and software testing perspectives, and I think it exemplifies the types of problems we get when we miss the complexity of our contexts.

Knight Capital Group was one of the more aggressive investment companies in Wall Street. In 2012 they developed a new trading algorithm. The algorithm was tested using a simulation engine, I assume to ensure to that stakeholders that the new algorithm would generate great revenues.

The testing of the algorithm was not enough to ensure revenues, however. In fact, the outcome of deploying to algorithm to production was great losses and the eventual bankruptcy of the company after only 45 minues of trading. What went wrong?

There are always several complementary perspectives. SEC, Securities and Exchange Commission of the U.S.A.:

[…] Knight did not have a system of risk management controls and supervisory procedures reasonably designed to manage the financial, regulatory, and other risks of market access […] Knight’s failures resulted in it accumulating an unintended multi-billion dollar portfolio of securities in approximately forty-five minutes on August 1 and, ultimately, Knight lost more than $460 million […]

From a testing perspective, it’s interesting that the technical root cause of the accident was that a component designed to be used to test the algorithm by generating artificial data was by some kind of mistake deployed into production along with the algorithm itself. This test component created a stream of random data and the effect was that the algorithm issued purchase orders for worthless stock.

It is paradoxical that the technical component that caused the accident was designed for testing, but it is not uncommon that software testing is often focused on relatively obvious, functional and isolated performance perspectives of the system under test.

Cynefin transforms thinking

Let’s imagine you’re the test manager at Knight and you choose to use Cynefin to help you develop the testing strategy for the new algorithm. David Snowden talks about Cynefin as a ‘sensemaking tool’ and if you engage Knights’ management, financial, IT-operations, and development people in a facilitated session with a focus on risks and testing, I’m pretty sure the outcome would be the identification of the type of risk that ended up causing the bankruptcy of the company, and either prevented it by explicitly testing the deployment process, or made sure operations and finace put the necessary “risk management controls and supervisory procedures” in place.

I think so because even with my limited experience so far, I have seen how Cynefin sessions are great for forming strategies to deal with the problems, issues, challenges, opportunities etc that a team is facing. It helps people talking seriously about the nature of problems, transforming them, and to escalate things that require escalation.

Cynefin seems to be efficient breaking the traditional domination of linear and causal thinking that prevent problem solving of anything but the simplest problems.

My interpretation of what is happening is that Cynefin helps extend the language of those participating in sessions, and in the following I’ll dive a bit more into why I interpret it that way.

Language and Conceptual Frameworks

Language is an every-day thing that we don’t think about, yet it is the very framework which contains our thinking. While we can know things we cannot express (tacit knowledge), we cannot actively think outside the frames our language creates.

Many philosophers have thought about this, but I’d like to refer to physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) who in several of his lectures, articles, and personal letters talks about the importance of language. Poetically, and paraphrasing him from my memory, he describes language as the string that suspends our knowledge above a void of endless amounts of experiences.

In a particular lecture “The Unity of Science” given at Columbia University, New York in 1954, Bohr introduce language as a “conceptual framework” and describes how Quantum physics is an extension of the previous conceptual framework used in physics:

“[it] is important […] to realize that all knowledge is originally represented within a conceptual framework adapted to account for previous experience, and that any such frame may prove too narrow to comprehend new experiences.”

And:

“When speaking of a conceptual framework, we merely refer to an unambiguous logical representation of relations between experience.”

Quantum physics is more than new laws about nature. Rather, it introduced new and complimentary concepts like uncertainty, and non-deterministic relations between events. The extension was made for quite practical purposes, namely the comprehension of observations, but has turned out to be quite useful:

“By means of the quantum mechanical formalism, a detailed account of an immense amount of experimental evidence regarding the physical and chemical properties of matter has been achieved.”

The rest is history, so to speak.

Why is this relevant to software testing and the talk about Cynefin? First of all, I think that the conceptual frameworks based on the thinking developed during industrialism are far from capable of explaining what is going on in software development and therefore also in testing. Further, Cynefin seems to be an efficient enabler to create extensions to the old thinking frameworks in the particular contexts in which we use it.

Cynefin and software testing

Software development is generally not following simple processes. Development is obviously a human, creative activity. Good software development seems to me to be much more like a series of innovations with the intention to enable someone doing things in better ways.

Testing should follows that.

But if language limits us to different types of linear and causal thinking, we will always be missing that there is generally no simple, algorithmic or even causal connection between the stages of (1) understanding a new testing problem, (2) coming up with ideas, and (3) choosing solutions which are effective, socially acceptable, possible to perform, and safe and useful.

Experienced testers know this, but knowledge is often not enough.

James Christie added in his comments to the early draft mentioned above that as testers, with Cynefin we can better justify our skepticisms about inappropriate and simplistic approaches. Cynefin can make it less likely that we will be accused of applying subjective personal judgment.

I would like to add that the extended conceptual framework which Cynefin enables with us and our teams and stakeholders further more allow us to discover new and better approaches to problem solving

David Snowden on Cynefin

This video is a very good, quick introduction to Cynefin. Listen to David Snowden himself explain it:

 

AI personally found this article from 2003 a very good introduction to Cynefin:

The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world (liked page contains a link to download the article)

 

The Art of Doubting

As a software tester, it is my job to question things. Questioning involves doubt, but is that doubt of a certain kind? Perhaps; let’s call it ‘good doubt’.

Monday May 15th 2017, I facilitated a philosophical, protreptic salon in Copenhagen about the art of doubting. The protreptic is a dialogue or conversation which has the objective of making us aware and connecting us to personal and shared values.

Doubt is interesting for many reasons. Self-doubt is probably something we all have and can relate to. But there seems to be value in a different kind of doubt than that with which we doubt ourselves.

Doubt is related to certainty. Confidence can be calculated statistically, and that seems to be the opposite of doubt.

Science almost depends on doubt: Even the firmest scientific knowledge is rooted in someone formulating a hypothesis and proving it by doubting it and attempting to prove it wrong.

Even religion, faith, seems to be related to doubt.

It is always interesting to examine the origins of a worud. The Danish and German words “tvivl” and “Zweifel” have the same meaning as the English doubt and all relate to the duo; two; zwei; to.

That appears to indicate that when we doubt we can be in “two minds”, so to speak.

So is doubt a special type of reflection, “System-2”, or slow thinking?

The protreptic is always about the general in terms of the personal. We examine our relations to doubt.

“What is it that our doubts wants or desires for us?” was one of my protreptic questions during the salon.

We circled a lot around that particular question. Finding an answer was difficult and we came back to self-doubt, which can be difficult to live with. Self-doubt can even harm our images, both the external ones and those that are internal to ourselves.

Leaders are usually expected not to have self-doubt: A prime minister risk loosing the next election if he doubts his own decisions and qualities. A CEO that doubts her own actions will drive the share value of the company down.

But there is a good doubt, and good doubt seems to be of a helpful nature.

Good leadership requires having the courage to doubt. It seems to help us act wisely and based on our experiences.

During the salon, my personal image of doubt changed. In the beginning I thought of doubt as a kind of cognitive function, perhaps a process I had to go through. Doubting could even be an event.

But at the end of the salon, my image of doubt changed into that a good friend walking with me through my life. Continuously present, if I want him.

With that image we found an answer to the question: Doubt is my friend. A friend who wants my actions to be driven not only by my instincts or simple gut feelings. A friends that help me shape my actions by my values.

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Passion for Testing and the Need for ‘Julehygge’

Christmas is almost over and while I am still having holiday with the family, I’m beginning to think a bit about testing again.

I am passionate about software testing.

There is a lot of talk about passion, but do we know what passion is?

The word shares roots with the greek ‘pathos’, which is one of the three key components of persuasion in rhetoric. The other two are ethos and logos.

Good communication should be fact based (logos) and serve a common greater good (ethos), but passion adds something important to communication.

The passionate lecturer

I remember two math lecturers from university. One taught analytical algebra, the other graph theory and combinatorics.

Both were personalities of the type you would notice if you saw them in the street, but if someone would then whisper to you: “He is an associate professor in mathemathics”, you would exclaim “ah!” and understand exactly what you were seeing 🙂

Their style of lecturing was very different, however.

Every lecture in graph-theory and combinatorics was unique. It seemed the lecturer literally reinvented what he was lecturing while he was doing it. He was not particularly organised in his teaching, sometimes he would even forget the subject, and divert off a wrong ‘graph’ (sic!). But he had passion for the subjects, and that showed. The lectures were often very engaging and fascinating.

The other lecturer prepared his lectures to perfection: He always started on the exact minute putting his chalk to the board in the top left corner of the first of the six large black boards in the auditorium, and by the end of the 90th minute, he would finish writing formula in the last available spot of the lower right corner of the last board. He repeated that time after time. A fascinating performance. But there was a problem, as he had obviously lost passion for the subject he was teaching. I felt bored to death during his lectures, and I am not sure I ever passed that exam.

Some testers are passionate about what they do, others try to be perfect. I always prefer passion over perfection.

Suffering by Passion

Passion is one of those tacit capabilities we know by heart, but will probably never be able to code, teach to a neural network, or explain to someone who has never experienced it.

The word has an interesting record in the Douglas Harper online etymology dictionary. Apparantly, passion used to be a kind of suffering:

Passion: late 12c., “sufferings of Christ on the Cross,” from Old French passion “Christ’s passion, physical suffering” (10c.), from Late Latin passionem (nominative passio) “suffering, enduring,” from past participle stem of Latin pati “to suffer, endure,” possibly from PIE root *pe(i)- “to hurt” (see fiend).

The article even goes on linking passion to sufferings of martyrs.

Let me confess now: While I am very passionate about good testing, I am not going to become a testing martyr.

Words change meaning over time and passion is certainly a word that has become more of a daily language term than it probably was back in the late 12th century.

Today, linking passion to sufferings, even physical sufferings, may seem out context.

However, it reminds us that passion does involve trading in some things that I like too: Staying relaxed, calm and cool, for example.

I am neither of those things when I am feeling passionate.

Passion seems to be a kind of double-edged sword.

Passion-Fatigue

I am always more tired after working passionately on a testing problem than when I’m doing more trivial things in my job: E.g. diligently replying to e-mails, writing factual test reports, checking out plans and schedules.

Could there be something called passion-fatigue? I think so, and when passion is a driver in daily work life, relaxation and recharging is important to stay healthy, sane, and well in the longer run..

The need for Hygge

Now that Christmas has just passed, but I am still enjoying days of holiday with the family, it seems right to mention ‘hygge’ (pronounced “hyk-ge”).

Hygge is Danish for relaxing with others, a good book or in other nice ways.

Hygge is difficult to define. In that way it’s similar to passion, except opposite: Relaxing, calming and mentally soothing.

A day with hygge could be so relaxing and good that it deserve finishing off with a good tequila, scotch, or another good drink of your preference 🙂

What’s interesting here is that hygge seems to be a good cure for passion-fatigue. Hygge creates space for passion.

And this is exactly what ‘Julehygge’ is about: Getting away from daily life, relaxing with family and friends, and recharging.


Is “hygge” becoming a global fashion trend? The New York Times had an article on the fashion of hygge a few days ago: Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes


 

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Detail of Christmas tree in our living room. Perhaps more than anything, a Christmas tree is in Denmark a symbol of “Julehygge”.

Playful Software Testing

I met with and enjoyed a very good conversation with Jessica Ingrassellino in New York back in September. Jessica presented a workshop on playful testing during the Reinventing Testers Week (I presented at the conference about “Testing in a Black Swan Domain” which, unfortunately, I have not had time to write about yet).

We talked mostly about philosophy.

Jessica is quite a multi-talent: Plays the violin virtously, is an educated music teacher, has switched career to testing, taught herself Python, authored a book on Python programming for kids, and is teaching Python classes at a local community college, as well as music classes.

She has a vision of making testing playful and fun.

Structured work govern testing in professional settings, work which has nothing to do with play. So why is play important?

Jessica puts it this way:

When the power of play is unleashed in software testing, interesting things happen: The quality of the testing performance becomes noticeably better, and the outcomes of it too. This results in better software systems, higher product quality.

I have a product engineering background and play is important for me too. Engineers have methods, calculations, and procedures, but great engineers know that good solutions to problems are not found by orderly, rational processes. Good solutions depend on creativity and play.

Friday December 9th, I met with Mathias Poulsen in Copenhagen. Mathias is the founder of CounterPlay, a yearly conference and festival on serious play in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark.

About three years ago, Mathias got the idea for the conference.

In the first year, 2014, it was an immediate success with more than 20 talks and workshops in 3 tracks on “Playful Culture, Playful Learning, and Playful Business”, and more than 150 participants. This year (2016), the conference had 50 scheduled sessions: keynotes, talks, workshops, mini-concerts and open sessions.

Mathias explains (about 0:30 into the video):

Counterplay is basically an attempt to explore play and being playful across all kinds of domains and areas in society. We are trying to build a community of playful people around the world to figure out, what does it mean to be playful and why do we think it is beneficial?

Processional IT has so far not been represented at the conference, Mathias told me. I found that a bit surprising, as at the moment almost everything in IT seems to be buzzing with concepts promising joy and fun – play.

Sometimes, however, there is an undertone to all the joy. Agile and DevOps have become popular concepts even in large corporations, and to me, both strive to combine productivity with playfulness. That is good.

But is the switch to Agile always done in order to pass power to developers and testers, allowing them to playfully perform, build and test better solutions? No, not always.

Play facilitate change and breaking of unhelpful patterns, but sometimes play is mostly a cover for micromanagement. There is a word for this: In a recent blog post, Mathias talks about playwashing:

Playwashing describes the situation where a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “playful” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing strategies and business practices that cultivate a playful culture in said organization.

A question is therefore how we genuinely support play? Are there methods or processes that better accommodate playfulness at work?

I believe there is. Processes need to leave space for exploring context, knowledge sharing and actual interaction with customers, stakeholders and team members.

But processes or methods will not do the job alone. In fact, putting play under the examination of psychology or cognitive sciences will never be able to grasp what play really is.

Play is more like music and poetry, where ideas based on assumptions about order, rational choice, and intention cannot explain anything.

Philosophy and especially the dialectical exploration of what it means being a playful human is much better at embracing what play means to us and how to support it.
Jessica and I are working on a workshop about playful and artful testing. It will combine ideas of playful testing with philosophy.

We are certain that breaking out of patterns will help testers, and breaking out of our patterns, participating in a conference which is fully devoted to play will teach us a lot.

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I took this photo in the local forest on a walk with our dog Terry (the black poodle). It is obvious, when dogs play well, that they have fun and learn a lot through play. Play seems a fundamental capacity for mammals.

Wanted: Test Leadership (or why verbs can be better than nouns)

The exceptional testing performance requires something from everyone of us: We are performing in teams, but as individuals we need to be experts in our craft, tools and methods.

That is not all, though. We also need to be expert ourselves.

How can I be myself? That is a question, which philosophers have discussed for thousands of years.

We have to talk and think more about our personal values to become ourselves. I find that knowing and acting on our values is key to our professional performance as testers, and even more as leaders. It requires a rich language.

The problem, I think, is that in the processes of perfecting our software and technology development, and manage our projects, our language has become dull, technical, command-and-control-focused and valueless. Am I right?

Language scientists believe that in the earliest languages, there were no nouns. Verbs existed before nouns.

This indicates that that our ancestors talked about our relation to the world and people around us long before they started naming things in it.

Today we spend almost all our working hours defining and naming things. We discuss whether one noun is better than another. Which is the correct noun to use in a situation. What noun names the best practice.

I find there is far too little talk about what to do with the things named by all the nouns. And more importantly: What comes out of doing stuff, in the world around us.

Naming things isn’t leadership. It is optimization of communication. I want to see more leadership in testing.

We should somehow go back to the roots of our language and start talking about testing values using less nouns, more verbs.

I am running a series of protreptic workshops with my friend Karen in Copenhagen. We bring together a very diverse group of people and talk about values. The setting is informal, but Karen and I facilitate it closely.

The experience is awesome.

One participant wrote to me that it requires a great deal of “brain work”, but is rewarding: “I have met people who are different from me, and that makes the experience interesting because you start thinking: why do I have the attitudes and opinions I have?”

We don’t do psychoanalysis or discuss reactions. We don’t talk about models of the brain either. There is, in general, no cause-and-effect-thinking in the workshop. Only lots of inspiration.

And we inspire each other to talk about worth and personal values. Asking “why do I have these attitudes and opinions?” is one way of discovering them.

Leadership is about the team taking responsibility together, but that is not something that is monopolized with the constituted leader anymore. Taking responsibility is on everyone’s shoulders today, even you and me, the individual team members.

“To lead others, first you have to lead yourself”, my friend Maibritt Isberg Andersen says.

And now, that we are all test leaders, I really hope we will all start talking more about our attitudes and opinions, and why we have them.

It is about inspiring test leadership.