Modern (post-industrial age) sociology has created a few useful fictions or stereotypes which have found their way into the general parlance. True, most times the general understanding of these fictions is completely inappropriate or outright incorrect when compared against the actual usage meant when coined. But one thing is certain when it comes to concepts being taken out of context, no one really cares except the people who originally formed them.
I bring this up because one of those useful fictions is causing me some issues lately, and I’d like to address it. The fiction is the supposed tension between conservative and liberal elements within a society. Before knickers are bunched and assumptions are brandished like weapons, let’s address the terms themselves. Conservative elements those elements resistant to change while liberal elements actively promote change. Supposedly there is tension within both micro and macro societies between elements attempting to defend the status quo and those seeking to alter it, the ascribed motivations for each usually being a function of one’s particular belief system when it comes to sociological or political or economic theory.
The issues I’ve been having lately are warring camps who have decided to stake claims within the quality assurance community around sequential versus iterative development methodologies. Sides have apparently been chosen and mental territory is being defended with the vehemence of children on a playground. Accusations ranging from luddism to anarchism being tossed back and forth with wild abandon. Of course like most dogmatic debates based on theoretical constructs, these completely miss the point.
So what is the point, you may ask? The point is appropriateness. Clayton M Christesen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemna (required reading in my opinion) raises the very interesting point that established companies are successful because they have developed processes which drive or facilitate their success. In the case of innovation in alignment with these processes, he deomonstrates established companies have a remarkable track record for staying ahead of the curve and leading their market in both quality and innovation. It’s only when the market changes due to what he terms “disruptive innovations” (ie: 3.5 inch disc drives, hydraulic excavation tools, dirt bikes, etc) that established companies fail while smaller companies succeed.
Mr Christensen’s (paraphrased) explanation for this is simple, the processes in place at successful companies cannot be drastically altered in the face of disruptions. Successful companies can bend and adapt processes, but only up to a point. What do I and he mean by that? Let’s take a look at solid state disc drives. The movement from 8 inch to 5 inch disc drives was disruptive because it reflected a radical change in the user market with different needs and requirements (personl workstation vs PC). Does the shift from magnetic to solid state drives represent a similar shift? No. The solid state drives currently being marketed are used in the same manner as a magnetic drive, by the same customers, and represent a significant leap in performance (but not stability). A more interesting disruptive technology is the use of SD cards, which with the advent of SDXC have the possibility of storing as much data as a normal hard drive with the added benefit of an incredibly compact size and amazing portability.
The follow up point Mr Christensen makes about disruptive technologies is the creators nearly always get it wrong at first when predicting markets. Xerox got it wrong with the mouse, and so gave it to Macintosh. Honda got it wrong with their small 150cc motorcycles, but got it right later when outdoor enthusiasts in California began buying them for off road fun. The lesson to be taken from these examples is a company working in a disruptive technology must practice learning development and not commit their resources to a particular path. They must work with the markets, experimenting with offerings, and altering their designs and assumptions at the requests of the market rather than assumptions or market research projects. If a car company wants to purchase your 3.5 inch disc drive for a navigational system and cares more about durability than write times, start making them more durable and stop working at increasing capacity and write times Does that sound familiar to any of you? It should because that learning as you go model is capital “A” Agile defined for all industries.
So what does a quality assurance professional do when there are no defined processes to review as the company is learning what those should be? Plenty. The quality assurance professional in a disruptive company should act as the opposite of a process improvement expert. Companies looking to build out a disruptive market cannot afford to define their best practices until they have established themselves as successful. To do so is to miss market opportunities, allowing another company to grab them. So the role of a disruptive QA is to constantly act as an iconoclast while making sure all market opportunities are explored, even if they at first do not seem to be in alignment.
So to summarize, there is no one way to do things for all companies. Processes like CMMI ad Six Sigma are highly effective in established companies seeking to lead through sustaining innovation (ex: solid state drives for the PC). These same processes are death to a company seeking to lead through disruptive innovation (ex: SD cards with embedded operating systems) as they will inevitably result in missed opportunities and inflexibility. The role of QA in sustaining innovation is to constantly work at improving processes by looking for inefficiencies, waste, duplication, or other sources of “muda.” The role of QA in disruptive innovation is to constantly work at making sure processes are supporting the learning development rather than defining it. In a disruptive company there is no “muda” as there is no frame of reference for waste.