Seeing and Thinking Differently

In talking about test teams as inventors, I mentioned that Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else does and thinking something different.” I wanted to go back to that thought because it’s not the act of “thinking something different” but rather the act of “thinking differently” that really matters to me. This is even more so the case in an industry where testing and development continue to move closer together and, in fact, often merge.

A team — or set of teams — that is focused on quality presumably have to see things differently. Not better, necessarily; just differently. This means they have to think differently than other people do. Let’s face it: thinking is an acquired habit that can be improved; the brain is a muscle and when that neural substrate is exercised the mind that it gives rise to is that much stronger.

My experience is that the truly effective quality-focused teams have a certain mode of perception, if you will. They need to see things as if through the optics of a giant many-faceted diamond, somewhat akin to the eye of a fly or a bee in the insect world. A quality focus requires taking in scores of overlapping images and concepts. While this kind of multi-faceted view can help us to see things differently than others, this somewhat unusual mode of apperception can produce a unique mode of personal expression.

Granted, as a professional tester I’m biased, but I do believe that it’s this unique mode of personal expression that sets apart the tester mentality from other people within the same team or related teams, even if those people have similar skill sets. Here I’m talking about a mind set, which is effectively saying that I’m talking about a way of viewing the world.

I should say I do think there’s a danger inherent for those who have this mind set but where an effort isn’t made to bridge the apperception with the perception. The danger is that such people might never quite settle on words to explain themselves. They will instead tend to produce spiky, intense concepts that, to some people, might appear contradictory or even incoherent. They may also tend toward the other extreme: massively coherent, but often with a dense amount of material for you to read. Early in my career I fell into the former camp. Later in my career, I veered into the latter camp.

What I’ve found is that you need to bridge the apperception you utilize with the perception that you need to convey. This is where you start to merge the power of seeing and thinking differently

Bringing this around to something else, in discussing what makes testing complicated, I said that I felt quality was a perception. Likewise when discussing how testers do not assure quality, I mentioned that quality is an always-evolving and malleable perception. Quality has various viewpoints. Well, the multi-faceted view that I mention here in this post is how a skillful tester focuses on those various viewpoints, often at the same time.

I like to correlate my thinking in one area with that in another. So, with that idea in mind, let’s now take a stroll outside Quality Assurance, Testing, and even Information Technology for a second.

As an historical example, let’s consider the work of Karl Heinrich Graf and Wilhelm Vatke. Both sought to showcase the development of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) by figuring out what order the putative “source documents” (called J/Y, E, D, P) came into play. Graf worked on deducing from references in the various biblical texts which of the texts logically must have preceded or followed the others. Completely independent of this, Vatke sought to trace the history of the development of the ancient Judahist religion by examining tests for clues as to whether they reflected early or late stages of the religion.

Both men came to the same conclusions. To me, they were good thinkers. They thought differently than others by coming up with working hypotheses in their discipline. However, their work really took off when Julius Wellhausen tied those source documents to history and showed a believable framework in which those documents could have been developed. This led to the Documentary Hypothesis that has guided biblical scholarship for decades. Wellhausen not just thought differently than others, he saw differently than others as well.

Now let’s consider the work of Werner Heisenberg. He came up with the idea of an uncertainty principle behind subatomic motions of particle interactions and this led him to develop matrix mechanics. Totally independent of this, you had Erwin Schrödinger who came up with the notion of superposition of particle states and this led him to develop wave mechanics as the principle behind subatomic motions. In both cases, I don’t think anyone could doubt these men were good thinkers. They thought differently than others.

However, their work really gained credence when Paul Dirac turned up and showed that both matrix mechanics and wave mechanics could be combined into a formulation known as transformation theory. What Dirac did was show how these two models could be treated as mathematically equivalent forms for what became known as quantum mechanics, one of the most successful theories ever worked out. Dirac not just thought differently than others, he saw differently than others as well.

Okay, so now let’s bring it back home. Testing and Quality Assurance are disciplines, no more and no less than historical/literary analysis and physical theory are disciplines. And, as in those disciplines, we too can think and see differently than others around us. I would argue, in fact, that this is part of the value testers bring that distinguishes them even as their roles tend to get merged into other roles or other teams.

Further, when the thinking of testing is translated into the broader focus thinking of Quality Assurance, and when that thinking is then applied to your company and its focus, thinking differently and seeing differently is what will keep the company ahead of any competition. And I like that because it means that what the company practices externally, you must practice internally. And vice versa. It’s a positive feedback mechanism.

I realize there’s not a lot of substance to this post beyond my ramblings. This is an area that I’m starting to explore as I’ve been asked more and more to think and talk about questions like these:

  • What really distinguishes the testing mindset from that of other mindsets?
  • What really takes a tester from someone who does a series of tasks to someone who is a curious investigator?
  • What really is the driver that distinguishes some QA professionals from glorified testers to those who can drive a company to success on one of its key motivating aspects, competitive advantage?

I don’t have the answers. I have lots of thoughts. I have lots of questions. But I have no answers yet. I hope that by investigating these questions — and I encourage all testers to do so — I can think and see differently enough to maintain relevance and skill in a world of testing that is rapidly evolving, where the very identity of the distinct tester and the distinct quality assurance professional is morphing and shifting.

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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