Test Teams Need Inventors: Balancing Creativity

In a previous post I talked about inventors as people who see and think differently. I also brought the idea of inventors having to institute cultural change in some cases. What I didn’t do is how an inventor utilizes their skill-set and mind-set to get that change going. So let’s talk about that. Hopefully I won’t make too much of a fool of myself.

Being an inventor is about utilizing inherent aspects of creativity and individuality in order to foster change and a healthy social context. Now, individuality is great and all but it’s generally true that people are working in teams. Given this reality, how individuality is fostered and allowed to express itself can make all the difference. I’ve seen so many test teams in particular become shadows of what they could be because their ability to individually contribute creative solutions as part of a team dynamic is not fostered and encouraged.

Yet, there is a danger perhaps of treating creativity and individuality as processes in their own right. Why might that be a problem? Well, let’s grant the following:

  • Invented solutions do have to allow for the discretion, creativity, and judgment that are part and parcel of human beings.
  • To a certain extent this creativity and judgment will be based on facts and rules and, as such, can be encapsulated in a process.

Even allowing for process focus, creativity and judgment are also based on social context and experience. It’s this latter aspect that I’ve often seen either go entirely unrecognized or be given nothing more than lip service. It’s a pity when either of those things happen because that leads to low morale among employees who feel their individual creativity is not allowed to be harnessed.

The People Factor

Systems of people — like the team you are probably a part of — are composed of, not surprisingly, people. That sounds obvious, of course, but the reason I bring it up is because systems of people are often treated as if they’re solely made up of processes, tools, or programming languages.

Think about it and I bet you may have encountered a situation like this. I once worked on a team called the Automation Tools Team. I often had the impression that people only thought about us in the context of the tools, forgetting the human element that made these tools work. To be sure, none of us — myself included — did much to change that impression.

When encouraging people to be part of a social context — and especially if considering them as a change agent within that context — it’s important to consider a few elements of that person, such as:

  • Thinking quality
  • Thinking speed
  • Creativity
  • Motivation

Obviously a major complicating factor there is the extent that you can judge each item. But the point is that you should try to think about what it means for an individual to work in terms of a larger group or team with those attributes.

In my experience, what usually happens is that managers try to subsume all these people aspects into some sort of process. This conceptually matches what engineers tend to do. If something is complicated, an engineer will try to redesign the system such that it works in a more constrained region of simpler behavior; behavior that is capable of being modeled. The problem is that this doesn’t always work with human beings and their behaviors in relation to a team. A good example of this is dealing with inherently creative people or an entire group whose main focus is often being creative.

Many times applying process to these groups, at least at every single level of detail, can be difficult. When such a process focus doesn’t work, an assumption tends to be made that these groups — or certain individuals — are just non-process-oriented. This conclusion isn’t always valid. I say that because many creative people do follow a process. It just may not seem like it. This is because what others are seeing with creative people is a practice in action. More on that in a bit.

In relation to groups or individuals that are highly creative, a question often gets asked by managers: “How do we get these people to understand process?” The idea is usually to somehow try to “flow chart” their activities in the hopes that they’ll start to understand the benefit of having a process that can be strictly defined for them. But, like I said, it’s often not a matter of these people not understanding process; rather it’s their recognition that process can constrain them. Remember we’re talking about creative people here. People will tend to react adversely to anything that they see as potentially limiting their creativity and individual contributions to their day-to-day tasks. They usually have good reason for this because, let’s face it, many processes are not designed to accommodate the creative of the human beast.

You’ll probably notice that a bit of a theme above is that there’s often a back-reaction to creativity — and thus individuality — because it’s feared that this might de-rail the efforts of a team as a whole. After all, if everyone is off doing their own creative thing, how can the team possibly function as a cohesive whole, right? So the goal becomes trying to force that creativity into a process. What I’m arguing for so far is that what creative people often follow are the dictates of a practice. So now let’s talk about that distinction.

Practice and Process

On a team, creative people are working longitudinally — such as to meet deadlines — but they’re also working laterally. That lateral part is critical because it’s part of being creative. So a “flow chart” process imposed on such people will allow them to see the longitudinal aspect just fine, but won’t do much to show the lateral aspects of their job. And that’s where you’ll get resistance. You’re going against the grain of what makes such people creative. Even if they don’t follow “the process,” if such people are efficient in terms of hitting their deadlines, then you’re really shooting yourself in the foot to not realize this. If you’re going to advocate process in this context, here’s something I’ve found it handy to keep in mind:

A handy heuristic is that there are always going to be tensions between the demands of process and the needs of practice.

These tensions, in most instances, are based on struggles over meaning regarding how something is done. These struggles occur throughout an organization or even just within a team, pitting the process-focused need for some sort of uniform organizational need against the practice-based struggle for locally coherent meaning to satisfying that need.

While process may be clearly important to the overall coherence of the organization and your team, in the end it’s the practice of the people who work on the team that will bring process “to life,” so to speak. (Or, think of it in the reverse: they’ll bring some life to the process.) That point is crucial to understand when dealing with creative people or teams.

Process-focus and practice-focus are different viewpoints — usually from within the process and from outside the process. From outside the process, people find meaning in functional explanations that can be encapsulated in processes. They tend to rely on process-based, cross-functional, longitudinal accounts of why things are done. From inside the process, however, people tend to take a lateral view. A key point here is that process tends to impose more structure while practice can incur more spontaneity and both of these aspects are key structuring factors in teams and organizations.

So how does that practice become part of a process without fundamentally removing what makes the practice effective?

Creativity, Process and Specialization

One of the issues that comes up with process is specialization. In other words, the process dictates certain roles for certain activities and that means the people who got slotted into those roles tend to be the ones who do those activities and only those activities. By itself, that doesn’t nip creativity in the bud because the person can still be creative in their day-to-day application of those activities. That might speak to that longitudinal aspect again, but what about the lateral? What about fostering a team of creative people? That’s where I think specialization can hurt.

Granted, specialization can occur within any group within an organization and that can still be more or less creative in nature … but, in going with my discussion above, creativity is usually most effective in terms of practice and not necessarily in terms of process. Specialization can lead to a division of labor and while I’d grant that this can allow creative groups to form, the problem is that it tends to lead to localized regions of knowledge — areas of specialization, islands of sophistication.

When that happens, trying to homogenize a team around an overarching process can be difficult because the localized knowledge tends to foster those divisions. I say that because unique insights, practices, and developments will tend to occur only along the lines (longitudinal) of those various localized groups or people. Too much of a forcing of homogenization (lateral) on this kind of setup can increase coordination, in terms of a given process, but it can definitely dampen creativity.

In other words, the very creativity that allowed you to define the process in the first place is now being undercut by the process that was formed around the results of the creativity. I’ve always found this to be one of the most deliciously ironic aspects of the whole concept I’m talking about here. A fascinating paradox that often shows up when companies move from “startup phase” to “more process-focused.”

Invention and Innovation

What I’ve been describing so far is a distinction between coupling the organizational links (i.e., more coordination but perhaps less creativity) and decoupling the organizational links (i.e., more creativity but perhaps less coordination). And it’s here that you run into an interesting dilemma.

Separation — localized groups or isolated individuals within a group — can advance the idea of invention but this can lead to problems in innovation, which is basically the implementation of invention. The idea is that invention is what produces new ideas — and this requires innovation and coordination to turn ideas (inventions) into products and processes. But it’s that very coordination that can be lacking in the specialized or localized groups. So the dilemma I referred to is that group distance from process is needed for initial invention (practice) but is often harmful for organized innovation (process). What this all boils down to, at least in my experience, is a practice-based cultural gap that many organizational theories will attempt to subsume in a process or simply ignore.

Overall, coordination problems do place constraints on the structure of division of labor in terms of creative groups. The challenge in moving systematically from an initial invention (creative, practice-based level) through to innovation (organizational, process-based level) is the challenge of coordinating diverse, sometimes diverging, communities of practice, such as various creative groups or creative individuals.

Localized practice can evolve too independently and become loosely coupled to the process part of the organization. So you have to develop loose enough coupling such that groups are allowed to utilize their creativity but have tight enough coupling (or constraints) such that you can push that creativity along the lines of organizational process. Thus your guide for the practice (not the process) might not be so much in documentation but in modeling how the practice fits into the overall process. Again, this seems most logically to fit in those interfaces that I mentioned before.

A lot of discussion with documenting creative aspects centers on the distinction between self-organization and formal organization. Self-organization, as we all probably know, can, if left unchecked, self-destruct. Formal organization can help keep that at bay. The flip-side problem is that the use of deliberate structure to preserve the spontaneity of self-organization in a form of process can be overdone. Yet, it can also be the case that formal organization fosters the process of moving from invention to innovation. So, formal organization can organize knowledge (creative practice and organizational process), practice, and practitioners. What it comes down to is a balance between the spontaneity of practice and the structure of organization.

One thing I think that it’s important to consider are the possible trade offs between practice and process. I’ve found these trade offs can be thought of in terms of a few questions:

  1. How much of the practice do you subsume into the process?
  2. What creativity do you lose by doing so?
  3. How many constraints do you put on the practice and how far do you let it get from the guiding process?

These are all tough questions. I think that when dealing with creative groups, the goal should be to look at their practice and then look at ways that this practice can be channeled such that it operates in the context of the organizational process, but without necessarily being subsumed by it. Granted, that’s easier said than done but I also think that fostering the idea of a team of inventors is where you can start to make the most inroads. In other words, concentrate on the invention rather than the innovation, at least initially.

So why does this fall to testers? Well, in truth, it probably doesn’t. But if testing is treated as a design activity, and if it is permeated as a locally coherent, situationally-useful organization-wide function, then you start getting into the notion of test solution development. Test solutions must be invented. Test solutions should be acting towards providing a means for mutual understanding and mental alignment regarding quality decisions at all organizational levels. Thus the test function — a context that can operated within by people other than strict testers — by virtue of its wide-spread applicability can foster practice at various levels while having input into how the practices fit within a larger process.

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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