Saturday, 28 May 2016

Some Communication Patterns

Communication is fundamental. I've been visiting it recently (see related posts below).

Good product or software development generally has good communication involved. Yes, you will alway find outliers that are specialists at something that have poor communication skills. But, in my experience, the best managers, the best developers, the best architects, the best testers have good to very good communication skills.

In the late nineties I read "The User Illusion" [1] - a difficult read but one I found enlightening. One of the main points I took away from it was how we communicate, how we exchange and discard information and some of the pre-requisites to information exchange.

There is an implicit need to synchronise before we really exchange information and communicate. Synchronise - to understand (to some extent) the context of the person(s) one is communicating with.
Tip: Remember this!
In the last 6-7 years I've encountered other models - the Satir Interaction model [2], the idea of dialogues as a means to understanding [3] and even ideas around idea recording [4]

Communication Skills or System of Communication?
Communication skills are not about broadcasting messages, or being loud - prepared to stand on a soapbox or just being talkative or even argumentative.

Here, for communication skills read: the set of skills to help someone be understood - discussing an idea or message in a way appropriate to the other person/people, and also to listen and reflect on what the other person/people are saying.

A system of communication is the interaction - where an idea gets refined or examined and how. So people can have great communication skills but the communication (system) doesn't work for a number of reasons.

Spotting dysfunctional communication

Some Communication Anti-Patterns [and Antidotes]

- Being fixed on one explanation.
[Make alternative explanations visible or ask for alternative explanations. See Weinberg's "rule of three"]
- Listening for a gap rather than listening to understand. Waiting to speak, make your own statement rather than digging into what the person is saying, exploring and understanding.
[Try, "Tell me more", "why do you say that?", "should I try to explain my reasoning?", "shall we follow my train of thought so we understand what it's grounded in?", "shall we take this discussion at another time?"]
- Not asking for explanations or giving examples.
[Try, "Can you give an example?", "Shall I try to give an example in use?", "Is it clear or could it be misinterpreted without example?" ]
- Hidden frames, assumptions or agendas. This can be the case that someone is following a particular line of thought or argument and doesn't want to divert from that.
[Try, "can you explain the concern or importance for this particular idea". Tip: what is your own set of frames, assumptions and implications? Are they clear or hidden?]
- Dismissive elements, e.g. "that's a rubbish/stupid idea/thought".
[This is probably a symptom or result of one of the above patterns. Tip: take a break, pause and reflect.]
A Communication Checklist

- Did I understand what the other means?
[Are we "synchronised", do I understand their context?]
Tip: Ask for help? "I don't understand", "can you give an example"]
- Is there a value (or risk) in this person's idea/opinion?
[What's their frame of reference? Can they contribute something I've missed?]
Wait, that's rather a short checklist?????? If you combine these and iterate on the communication anti-patterns above, it might be all you need. [Challenge: add & refine this!]

The motivation (goal) should be to understand rather than change. If you start from the premise that, "this person is wrong" you're probably not open to the signals (consequences) of a particular line of thought.

Communication is to exchange, spread and refine ideas. And I assert that "healthy" communication is subject to the scientific approach.

If you take a "scientific" approach then you are examining data/ideas and understanding if they change your own ideas or ways in which they should be expressed. There's no way you can know your ideas are correct for ever. Anyone can bring a point of view, perspective or consequence that hasn't been examined before.

If someone brings an idea that has "bad" consequences (from your perspective) then point it out - demonstrate it.

But, what about the "crazies" or people who won't listen to reason? Well, if you've pointed to your reasoning and demonstrated your case (check: have you?) and are still convinced that your idea/opinion is correct or better --> then either walk-away or stick around and put up with it (if the value/potential gain of sticking around is greater than the risk of walking away).
This applies to personal communication between friends/colleagues and between you and your manager/stakeholder in the workplace.  
Note: I listen out for bad ideas - not necessarily to confirm the correctness of my own ideas (there is always a risk for this). Rather, it can be a useful tool to look for flaws in ideas and arguments. That's feedback on your own ideas and the way that you have tried to spread them. It's useful feedback on whether your own system of communication works.

If you don't take a "scientific" approach - what are you doing? Are you creating a belief system, cult or echo chamber? There are plenty of those....

Related Posts

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A Thought Experiment on Definitions

Thought experiments are a very powerful tool. You probably use them a lot without realising! Any time you wonder "what would happen if..." or "what is a possible consequence of that?" then you're making your own mini thought experiment.

Einstein used them to develop his ideas around relativity. A recommended documentary on this here.

I recently posed a thought experiment on twitter

thought experiment: what happens when one agrees on purpose behind a definition but not agree on it's usage..

There are a number of layers to this question.
  • Purpose
  • Definition
  • Agreement
  • Usage
This is the "why?" question. What problem are you trying to solve, and does the definition and usage examples help solve it?
So, what might happen if a usage of a definition doesn't appear to agree with it's intent, i.e. they are not congruous.

This is getting into the correctness and relevance area. Is the definition too narrow or broad? Is it circular? Is it complex to understand. Is there some guidance to help understanding?

Complex or obscure definitions may be harder to agree with. Is the definition accessible, useable and congruous. Is there controversy or disagreement? Is that due to the purpose-definition-usage parts not being in synch? Is the definition generally accepted - de facto agreement?

Is it clear how such a definition would and wouldn't be used? Are there any examples, or patterns and anti-patterns of usage somewhere - or indeed any guidance at all.

It's not necessary for a definition to have usage examples or guidance. But it might help the case. Think about dictionaries - do they often, usually or seldom include examples of usage or guidance notes? (I think the answer would, of course, vary with the dictionary used.) This question would seem to be more relevant if the definition is complex or is difficult to accept.

What might symptoms of non agreement between definition and usage look like?
  • Dislike of the definition (fit for purpose? relevance?)
  • Aversion or uneasiness with the definition (understanding, clarity?)
  • Misuse of the definition (understanding, clarity?)
  • Non-use (relevance, clarity, understanding?)
To me there are a number of consequences if such a contradiction crops up between usage and definition.
  • The definition is not clear or complete.
  • The usage of the definition is not clear or illustrated.
  • The definition is misunderstood.
  • The definition is communicated in a way that doesn't align with the definition.
  • There is resistance to the definition and/or usage - emotional response.
  • There is resistance to the definition and/or usage - different paradigm.
  • There is resistance to the definition and/or usage - different dictionary references.
  • There is resistance to the definition and/or usage - frames of reference.
  • There is resistance to the definition and/or usage - little value add visible.
  • A combination of the above or even something else.
So, good definitions are generally robust. Unfortunately in the world of software testing many definitions would fail a lot of these tests above. Go look in the ISTQB Standard Glossary of Terms used in Software Testing and try it. Do you find any terms that "don't add value"? 

Ok, so if I wanted play the school ground bully and pick on the weak I'd start with the ISTQB glossary, but I have higher intellectual ambitions, so...

I've been thinking about checking recently, let's try there.

I would say I have had a certain uneasiness with the definition - for reasons I don't think I've always been able to articulate. This could boil down to my understanding or the clarity of the definition or something else.

It could be that this feeling is also reflected elsewhere - as recently appeared on the software testing club. The reasons others may give for their "Icky feeling" may be unconnected from my observations, but it would be interesting for them to give their reasons.

Ok, so let's take the checking definition from RST:
Checking is the process of making evaluations by applying algorithmic decision rules to specific observations of a product.
  • “evaluations” as a noun refers to the product of the evaluation, which in the context of checking is going to be an artifact of some kind; a string of bits.
  • “algorithmic” means that it can be expressed explicitly in a way that a tool could perform.
  • “specific observations” means that the observation process results in a string of bits (otherwise, the algorithmic decision rules could not operate on them).
 Now let's apply it to a stochastic process - eg speech recognition.

According to the definition I can make specific observations (samples of audio) and apply an algorithm to them (for example a speech recognition algorithm). The interesting thing here is that the result is non deterministic (due to speech/accent/pronunciation variation - making the test data design problem difficult) and is going to need some engagement - both for input threshold parameters and analysis of the output. I might get a boolean output (match/no match) or I might get a range (78% match) - and that is a function of the input parameters and the specific observations I ran the algorithm with.

Now the actual algorithm that is making the comparisons is the "checking" part of the process. But this becomes a very small part of the whole - because I need to put effort (more effort and time than the algorithm takes) beforehand and afterwards.

To make this example fit into the current definition I'd have to have all possible samples for certain speech snippets (infinite) or I'd have to define the sample population (this is the test design part of the process - by implication this is part of "testing"). (I won't get into the problematics of the sampling mechanism I use.) So, I'm narrowing the checking part of the whole even more.

So, the question becomes (for me) - should I only use checks where I am certain of the wanted outcome - i.e. a binary answer (which might be "yes/no", "pass/fail", "above 78% threshold/not above 78% threshold"). And here's the problem - I'm quite happy to use scripts as change checkers - or early/leading indicators - they are a mechanism to draw my attention to a result and then ask a question, "should I investigate more or what does this result tell me?". As soon as I am paying attention to the result or thinking about it I am not checking anymore - that's testing.

In this example, checking becomes a very small part of the whole - compared with all the other parts of requirement and test analysis, test design, test set-up and result analysis that make up testing. Then I wonder what value it really adds.

Am I using the definition incorrectly? I don't see any usage examples anywhere, so maybe the definition is incomplete. Or maybe guidance is incomplete. Or maybe the terminology is just not useful for me.

Divergent thought: In the definition of checking it's not clear to me if the algorithm can be a non deterministic algorithm. It could be read in that way - then here's another thought experiment --> what would the consequences of that be?

If I was to revisit the purpose and intent behind this definition I'm not sure that it achieves what it wanted. The checking part is quite small - the other activities in testing are not described so the importance of checking seems to be artificially increased. This is a problem! To me, it would be better to list different tactics of test execution and highlight that checking is one of them.

So, in this example, the "checking" is a very small part of the whole and falls into (for me) a very narrow definition, with a certain amount of ambiguity. (It's narrow as it is contrasted with testing. This is analogous to a "testing vs test design post".) The definition is incomplete and/or incongruous (no usage example and generates confusion and discussion) and fails to add value (as it seems to artificially inflate the importance of checking in relation to other testing activities).

Note, it's taken me quite a while to come to this conclusion - I have needed to put an amount of time thinking around this. It's certainly not an obvious conclusion. And I can also understand if others don't have the time, energy or inclination to do this type of thought journey and treat it as a heuristic to help in their communication. And I also understand that this term is helpful for some people and they have success in using it with their stakeholders - again if this heuristic communication works for you - fine.

Final word
It seems to me that there are many definitions around in the testing and software testing community that could benefit from this type of approach. Do you agree? Which would you try it on first?

Potentially Related Posts

The Conway Heuristic
Communication Heuristic: Use Cases
Thoughts around the label "Checking"