" #softwaretesting #testing #cognition "
I saw a post on the STC, here, about best-in-context practices. I started thinking about 'best-in-show' (a la crufts) and best practices in general.
New ideas, terms or phrases usually trigger the same question: 'what problem is this trying to solve?'
BP in General
Best practices. Why tout them? It's a sales gimmick - 'here's my way of doing it and I think everyone should do it. And I can show you why it will solve your problems too'.
It's a sales pitch - and sometimes the best salesman wins. Or, it's a marketing gimmick - if you create enough exposure to the 'best practice' then it gets assumed to be 'best' because there is so much discussion about it.
Applying 'systems theory' - creating a best practice is like creating a local optimization - there's a danger it will sub-optimize for the whole system, ref . Best practices are inherently localized.
Think of the Spanish Inquisition (the real one and the monty python version) or '1984' and the thought police, ref . These organisations would probably have been thought to be quite effective to the ones that created them - that's the paradox of local optimizations, there's always at least one angle from which they look very good (or even 'best').
Good for the whole though? Here, of course, a lot depends on your idea of good and the frame in which you think of the problem - and the volume of your voice or marketing.
Unfair comparisons? Problem with framing?
Thinking in frames and framing the problem and choice! A problem with 'best practices' could be that:
- The problem has not been thought through to achieve a consensus of what practice to adopt - then someone makes a choice
- The problem and it's nature is not understood (ie in the next project the problem is different - this is hard work… - let's stick with what we have)
- A practice is used and gets labelled 'best' afterwords (maybe not by the original practice decision maker)
In the third case, it's use implies it's a 'best practice' even if it's not. Think from a typical/average manager's perspective - why would they use anything that wasn't best, so if it's in use now and isn't causing huge pain (or seems good enough) then they can be tempted to call it a best practice.
A Snapshot in Time and Good Enough
Personally, I think of best practices as ephemeral - a dragonfly that lives for a short time, and then it's gone - ie 'best' is like taking a still picture with a camera - there (at that timestamp) it's best - but it might not apply anymore….. That snapshot might not be 'best' if I started comparing with other snapshots…..
So, why search for 'best'? Why not search for 'good enough'? Or 'good enough for the problem in front of me'? To me, that would imply active thinking…. But achieving consensus about which practice to use might be simpler than you think - but working on your assumptions is needed. For example:
- What problem is trying to be addressed with a best practice?
- Is it a project manager/company that wants to create a 'standard' that they don't want to maintain?
- Is this a money-saving approach? Again maintenance.
- Is it telling the people not to think?
Maybe by paying people not to think (lower paid) then a practice needs to be adopted that is low-maintenance. This seem to be a dangerous game…
Perhaps companies tolerate them as long as the black swan event can't be traced to their choice of practice (or reification of it being 'the best'). Maybe they genuinely don't realise any better. Maybe the difference in practices is judged to be too small to not warrant the need for constant evaluation or judgement. (I suspect this is a default - coupled with cognitive fluency, see below)
But if this was a default option shouldn't there be less advocating/marketing/discussion of best practices? Well, progress implies (to many) re-invention or creation of new ideas, therefore 'discovering' a new best practice is quite marketable.
Smoke and Mirrors
Is the idea of a 'best' practice an illusion? Software development (including testing) is knowledge work - what's the 'best' way to think?
Is it not the case of an application of an industrial metaphor to knowledge-based work? Mmm!!
Is it a problem with language?
- "Practice makes perfect."
Implies there is a 'best' - this is also an example of cognitive ease (see below) and will be more easily remembered as being a 'good' guide.
- "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."
Not achieving 'the best' is probably politically incorrect in business circles - so there is pressure to say this or that is 'best'. But, remember, this is knowledge work.
Think of any award or recognition in the sciences - we don't say 'X is the best economist/physicist' - they are usually identified for their contribution. In the same way, we should be particular about any 'practice' that we use - what is it good and not so good for???
If you can't think of issues with the practice then you probably haven't thought hard enough.
Is it a cognitive problem?
The sticking point is 'best' - it's a superlative. It's natural that any manager would like to advocate and advertise that they are doing the 'best' possible. It becomes even worse if they have had a 'best practice' in the past - then it is harder to move away from such a practice as this is hard work convincing their peers why this is necessary.
Behavioural Economists and Psychologists also have a related theory - it's called cognitive fluency, ref , or cognitive ease, ref  - and it's the condition when something is easier to think about affects our choice. It has been noted that when something is easier to think about then it might be more readily believed to be true (or correct, or remembered - depending on context) - ie there builds an assumption (bias) that it is true (correct or something seen before).
This ease of thought can be obtained via familiarity (repeat messages), bolder and easier to read type and even colour.
So, if anyone (manager/stakeholder) has ever had success (however they gauge that) with a best practice in the past, then they are more likely to think of best practices as being a good thing, and their particular best practice in particular.
It is much easier to take an off-the-shelf practice for use in the next project rather than think it through and check whether it is good enough or not.
The opposite of cognitive fluency - cognitive disfluency - also holds true, it acts as a warning signal. So, forcing someone to re-evaluate what a 'good enough' practice is is always going to be harder than taking a ready-made practice off the shelf.
Why, then, should a project manager read and be aware of all the conditions of use for a 'best practice'? It's hard work. Managers/stakeholders usually assume (or hope) that knowledge workers are 'doing their best' under the circumstances.
The next time someone talks about a best practice, go easy on them - they are following an evolutionary pattern ('if it's familiar it hasn't eaten me') therefore, the onus is on us to highlight the shortcomings of the particular practice (if there are any to be found) or judging why it's fit for purpose.
That activity is important - it's like going through a pre-flight checklist - you see the potential warning signs when you can still act upon them!
Also, never present anything as 'best' for knowledge work - cognitive fluency will mean it becomes a best practice next time. Avoid superlatives (best) and indications of certainty or insurance, ref .
 Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011, FSG)
 Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Meadows, 2008, Chelsea Green Publishing)
 Flikr: Crufts Best in Show Roll of Honour