Testers Are Not Either-Or

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his essay called The Crack-up from 1936, defined a “first rate intelligence” as the ability to hold “two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” David Lapin, one time CEO of Strategic Business Ethics, and now CEO of Lapin International, referred to the “space of paradox” wherein trust and innovation had to co-exist. Donald Schön talks about the “generative metaphor” in his 1963 The Displacement of Concepts, which was the idea of bringing domains that appear to be different together in a single concept or design. Dorothy Leonard-Barton talked about “creative abrasion” in her 1995 The Well-Springs of Knowledge which was focused on bringing people with differing views together.

James Collins and Jerry Porras encapsulated a lot of these ideas in a style of thinking called “the genius of the and” in their 1997 Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It’s that book I’ll focus on here because I think the concept of the “genius of the and” is one that people can readily rally around. Built to Last is not a book that talks about quality assurance or testing at all, but it does talk about a very common thinking pattern in both of those fields.

Have you ever heard some of these statements:

  • “You can have reduced health care costs or you can have high quality health care.”
  • “Speed. Cost. Quality. Pick two.”
  • “You can have working software or you can have documentation.”
  • “Do you want better paid teachers or do you want lesser educated kids?”
  • “Are we agile or waterfall?”

These are what we might call either-or dichotomies. The question is: are they a false dilemma? In other words, is the either-or logic sound in that you have to choose one or the other? If you believe these are not a false dilemma, then you might want to read Built to Last. The book will tell you all (and probably more than) you want to know about issues like this. The book talks about the ability of an organization to adopt and implement two or more objectives at the same time that are seemingly contrary to each other. Now, the key word there is “seemingly.”

What the book attempts to show is that “either/or” isn’t really a choice, but a dictum. Such thinking is all about limits rather than what may be available under a different set of assumptions or a different way of thinking. The book is essentially a polemic for a quality view such that there’s a balance of strategic and tactical, a balance of innovation and process, and a balance of informal creativity and formal analysis. The authors referred to this balancing act as the “Genius of the And.”

According to the authors, a “visionary company” doesn’t simply balance between things like idealism and profitability. Instead these companies should seek to be idealistic and profitable. The balance here is having a purpose beyond profit and a pragmatic pursuit of profit. The authors also speak to having a relatively fixed ideology at the core of the business and allowing for change and movement within or beyond that ideology as circumstances dictate.

One example the authors use, to good effect, is the bit of “conventional wisdom” that said you inherently traded off operating results for customer satisfaction. The idea behind this statement is that companies achieve higher customer satisfaction through better on-time delivery and other metrics manufacturers but, in order to do that, they erode their operating margin by carrying safety stock, expediting orders, carrying excess capacity, etc. These institutionalized approaches to increasing customer service ended up being a corporate margin sinkhole. The authors argue that highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “genius of the and” and no longer settle for the either/or viewpoint. Visionary and leading companies find ways to increase customer service and improve operating margins.

The authors don’t focus much on the “cost / speed / quality” aspect, but it’s inherent in what they say and this can be seen when you compare companies that use more traditional development life cycles (such as the “waterfall model”) and those that practice some variant of agile development. Agile software development is all about not saying you can take your pick between good quality, or fast speed, or low cost. Rather, agile development is about saying you can have all those things: good quality (through rigorous testing, reviewing, and feedback learning) and fast speed (through face-to-face communication, less bureaucracy and more tacit knowledge) and low cost (through small teams of empowered generalists, in both the tester and developer camps).

The idea is recognizing when a balance is possible. As the authors state:

A visionary company works to preserve its core ideology and encourage vigorous change. It does both at the same time.

So, instead of choosing between A or B, people should try to first figure out if it’s possible to have both A and B and then work to see what they can do to achieve that balance. Jonar Nader had similar ideas to this. He talked about balancing creativity and logic, a practice he called logictivity. Logic tends to work on what already exists, whereas creativity tends to bring new things into existence. It’s important to realize that logic and creativity are forces and many think that balance between them means balancing the forces. However, this ignores the idea that balance itself is a type of force. It’s a new force and this starts you towards a new way of thinking about things. This is an excellent example of the “genius of the and.”

There is an opposite effect that the authors refer to as the “Tyranny of the Or.” This is basically the viewpoint that someone can have one option or the other, but not both, in all cases. In other words, it reduces things to an either-or false dilemma, regardless of whether or not such a dilemma is valid. It’s sort of like those people who think they are being so clever when they come up with phrases like: “Speed. Cost. Quality. Pick two.” Reliance on this phrase doesn’t show a quality mind set in any way, in my opinion, and it also is a way of avoiding the deeper issues of why that phrase exists, such as the (often unrealistic) expectations of speed, cost, and quality and their relationships to each other.

A brief article on this topic was written by David Lapin. The article is entitled Developing a Company Culture that Works: “OR” vs. “AND”. The article provides an excellent summary of the concepts in the book. Incidentally, I would also recommend reading the book Good to Great.

You might be wondering how any of this is supposed to apply to your day-to-day tasks. Well, the practical point that I got out of this book is to look for either-or situations that are presented and determine if, in fact, that situation is being presented as a false dilemma. Ever since I read this book, my thinking has changed in that I’m constantly looking for when people are presenting things as “either-or” situations and seeing if I can change those into “this-and-that” situations. When I do find myself in a position where I need to choose between two good options, I try to find a way to get both of them. This requires me to think creatively about solutions. And thinking creatively is what being a tester is all about.

About Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.
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