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)

 

Efter 15 år som freelancer tør jeg godt tvivle på mig selv

I disse dage er det 15 år siden jeg tog springet og gik freelance. Det har jeg ikke fortrudt!

Jeg er blevet hyret ind som eksperten, der skal gøre det komplicerede enkelt og løse problemer. For det meste I lange kontrakter, men altid som den frie fugl. Jeg elsker det faktisk!

Konsulentjobbet kræver masser af kærlighed: Kærlighed til problemerne, der skal løses og kærlighed til de mennesker som har problemer. Ja, og kunden. Der følger også mere kedelige ting med: Kontrakter, fakturering,… den slags. De er en del af gamet.

I gamet er også en forventning om performance: At vi hurtigt kan gå ind og “levere varen” – uden slinger i valsen.

Ydmyghed er faktisk utrolig afgørende. For, – hånden på hjertet – konsulenter er langt fra perfekte og slet ikke ufejlbarlige.

Specialistrollen og forventningen om den sikre performance må aldrig komme til at betyde, at man ender med næsen i sky. Jeg kan godt blive lidt flov, hvis jeg ind imellem møder en anden konsulent med en attitude i retning af at de er universaleksperter, der altid ved bedst.

Jeg synes jeg selv er rimeligt god til at undgå den attitude. For mig hjælper det at jeg jævnligt mindes om nogle af de fejl jeg har begået. Efter 15 år i rollen har jeg ikke længere tal på, hvor tit jeg har fejlet i en opgave. Pinligt, men sandt. Og nu har jeg sagt det!

Den klassiske pinlige situation for mig som tester er et ”bugslip”: Kunden vil gerne have testet, at systemet vi arbejder med viser netop et bestemt resultat og jeg er hyret ind til at dokumentere kvaliteten af systemet inden vi går i produktion med det.

Jeg er testekspert og har indsigt i teknikken og projektet. Jeg udfører ordren. Det ser fint ud. Vi overholder planen. Alt er godt.

Men så kommer der melding om en fejl i produktion, og endda et åbenlyst problem som jeg simpelthen overså da jeg testede.

I sådan en situation er det ikke rart, at være i mine sko. Puh, jeg husker hver eneste gang det er sket, og det er mere end en gang! Det ligger desværre i testerjobbet, at det sker. Jeg prøver, at afstemme forventningerne om det, men sjovt er det aldrig.

Den situation og andre fejl jeg har haft del i har lært mig, at nok er det ret vigtigt at bruge sin erfaring og ekspertise, men det er også vigtigt at kunne tvivle på sig selv. Ja, tvivle: At vide, at ekspertise tit er langt fra nok til at garantere succes.

Sommetider er det faktisk netop ekspertisen, der står i vejen for at man gør det godt.

En generel ting jeg har tænkt lidt over (men ikke tænkt færdig) er, at vi alle faktisk burde blive bedre til at improvisere. Altså improvisere ærligt og blive dygtige til det: Fejle kontrolleret, observere det vi kan lære – og gøre bedre, fejle lidt mindre, evaluere, gøre det meget bedre.

Altså blive bedre til at undgå at lade os blænde af tidligere gode erfaringer – og derfor misse det åbenlyse.

Jeg tror i alle tilfælde på, at det er en kvalitet, når jeg som konsulent tager tvivlen med på arbejde – som en god ven, der hjælper til at jeg gør mit bedste. Og jeg tror på, at det er en kvalitet, hvis jeg deler tvivlen på en konstruktiv måde, så vi i fællesskab kan bruge den til at gøre vores bedste.

Ekspertisen og erfaringen er stadig vigtig. Men tvivlen må vi alig glemme.

I øvrigt føler jeg mig klar til at tage 15 år mere. Måske ses vi derude! Og bliv ikke overrasket, hvis jeg er eksperten, der tvivler.

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


 

dsc_5846_jpeg-srgb-2
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.

dsc_5398
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.

The many are smarter than the few: How crowds can forecast quality

This is a blog post which I’ve had underway since early May. It is about a new way of assessing quality. Let’s start with how we normally work:

Testers usually work alone or in small teams checking and exploring functionality, finding bugs, issues, and other artifacts. These artifacts do not by themselves say anything about the quality of the whole product, instead they document things which are relevant to quality.

In this blog, I’ll propose a different kind of testing, one which is organised in a way which is radically different from traditional testing – and which can produce a quite different type of result.

My inspiration is the 2004 book by James Surowiecki: ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ with the subtitle ‘Why the many are smarter than the few’. In the book, Surowiecki presents a thought provoking fact: That while some individuals are very good problem solvers or excellent forecasters, a diverse crowd of ordinary people can always do better than any single individual.

Surowiecki explains this in a very convincing manner and the book is an enlighting read. I find Surowiecki’s thoughts a welcome diversion from what most seems to be concerned about these days: The performance of the individual. Too often, we forget that most good solutions are not invented or implemented by any single person, but by groups of people. And that the performance of teams often depend more on the composition of the team than on the individuals in it.

As a tester, I enjoy working alone as well as in teams, but reading Surowiecki’s book made me think of ways to apply his thoughts to make quality assessments of a different kind than those traditional testing can make.

James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds

Let me start the description with an example of a question which traditional testing cannot easily answer, but which I think a new kind of assessment can:

A client approaches us with a product which is still under development and therefore not yet on the market. The client tells us that he needs a holistic quality assessment of the product and he asks us to provide the answer to a very simple question: Will it be a good product?

Though I can produce a wealth of information about a product I’m testing, answering this question is not possible by ordinary testing alone. I may be able to make up an opinion about the product based on my testing, and I can communicate this to my client, but it will always be a fundamentally subjective view.

And there is no practival way of assessing whether my view of the product matches that of the collective intelligence of the population of users of the future product. An expert in the field of forecasting product successes may do better than me, but in principle he may be just as wrong as I am – and the worst thing is that we will not know whether he’s right or wrong.

Humans are actually very good at coming up with answers to open ended questions: Quality is something that everyone tends to have an opinion about! But while a single human can (and according to Surowiecki will) make interpretation errors, Surowiecki points out that in a crowd, the errors will be evened out. Aggregated opinions can be a very reliable prediction of the quality of the finished product.

The crowd does not have to be a team of experts. Surowiecki points out that rather than focusing on maximizing the individual members’ domain knowledge and level of experience, the crowd should be put together to be as diverse as possible.

Obviously we have to supply some information about the product to the group – they can’t make up their minds about quality without knowing something about the product. Collecting information has to be done by someone and provided to group members. This is an important task which a ‘moderator’ has to do.

In the ideal situation, we will provide all available information the group: Prototypes, design documents, concept descriptions, ideas, diagrams – even code! The idea is to allow each individual member of the crowd use his own heuristic making up his mind about the question.

But that won’t work in practice. Asking all group members to read everything is just not effective. Besides, the documentation could lead them in wrong directions: They will focus on the most easily accessible parts and will avoid information for which they have to work a little to get to it.

So the moderator will have to make a ‘flat’ (as opposed to hiearachical) binder of different information from the product. What should it contain?

When I was learning sketching and drawing, I was introduced to the problem of drawing leaves on a tree or hair on an animal. I was taught a trick, which is to draw every 100th leave or every 10,000th hair accurately. It will then look correct to the viewer.

I suggest making the ‘information collection’ in the same way: Pick some documents, some diagrams, some code, some tests. Or even, pick some pages from some documents.

The idea is that the crowd members actually doesn’t need to see everytning – they only need enough to formulate an opinion. And then they should see different things, so we’re most certain that they will form different opinions about the system.

How about questions – what questions should we ask? We will have to ask them in a way so answers can be aggregated into a combined result. We may want ask them to give a score, which can then be averaged or in other ways analysed.

Surowiecki points out some important pitfalls that should be avoided. I’ll focus on what is often referred to as collective thinking. This is what happens when a group of people turns out to be ‘dumber’ than the individual members. A bullet proof way to get people to think in collectives is to let some members of the crowd influence other members: E.g. by putting a very charismatic person in the role of chairman or manager for the group. Surowiecki refers to several examples of how group thinking has lead to wrong decisions, and it is obvious that if we want to make an assessment which can be trusted, we have to avoid it. By all means.

So ‘voting’ should be secret, and we should generally prevent members from communicating with each other. If we do allow them to communicate, we should moderate the communication to ensure that individual members are not allowed to influence the opinions of other members.

Is crowd involvement in testing a new thing? I think so. I don’t think the concept has been described before.

On the other hand, many beta test programs have traits of it.

But where the crowd based quality assessments (or forecasts) can take place at any point in the development process, beta testing by definition takes place on an almost finished version of the product. And beta test programs produce the same types of results as ordinary testing: Bugs and other artifacts.

Holistic crowd testing is not an efficient bug factory. Its power is its ability to answer holistic questions about a product under development.

I’d like to set up a workshop in a forthcoming software testing conference where the idea can undergo further development. Let me know if you’re interested in participating, and I’ll let you know when and where.