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Management Theory, Offshore Development, Quality Assurance, Software Testing, Test Management

Learning Development: The role of QA during disruptive innovation

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.


About cowboytesting

Hi. My name is Curtis S, and I'm a tester.


10 thoughts on “Learning Development: The role of QA during disruptive innovation

  1. I know what you mean. Process is better than chaos, and process improvement is a noble pursuit. But sometimes I see folks characterize adaptation of a mature process or method as dogmatic, and then assert how some other process or method is superior.

    I dunno if there were any process dogma to begin with, but what I see in the result is folks fighting dogma with dogma. And sometimes they throw out very cute babies with some only moderately dirty bathwater.

    So I’m with you. I love studying methodology, but like you and thankfully a growing number of others, I’m simply context-driven. Some words of widsom I’ve found to be applicable to many, many topics where people can get rigid and ideological: “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”


    Posted by Jacob Stevens | July 15, 2010, 1:07 pm
    • I agree that process improvement cannot be effective if conducted in a vacuum. It’s always amazed me how some people apparently assume words like “improvement” or “best” have some sort of objective or universal value, hence we can approach process “improvement” as an objective, self-referential exercise.

      I’m also amazed at the anarchists who claim there can be no good unified process in software development. This post was an attempt to solidify in my mind the instances when less defined and unified process was preferable to more and what the person concerned with improvement should do in each scenario.


      Posted by cowboytesting | July 16, 2010, 12:51 pm
      • > the instances when less defined and unified process
        > was preferable to more


        >what the person concerned with improvement
        >should do in each scenario.

        Until you made me think about it, I was of the conviction that a less defined and unified process might be preferable to a more defined and unified process… when one is in the position of an entrant (rather than an incumbent) – but that very philosophy may lay at the core of what makes incumbents vulnerable to disruption. (So I guess that’s no longer my answer.)

        As to what the person concerned with improvement should do in each scenario – that one is easy and can be answered on a micro (firm-specific) basis as opposed to a “universal” basis. One must formulate the actions and activities of one’s functional area (quality among them) to be consistent with the strategy of the the firm in which it exists. The first reason for that is because you stand less of a chance of getting fired if your team is operating in a manner supportive of the corporate strategy (dead martyrs do not get to do much to help anyone). The second reason to strive to be consistent with strategy is that it leads to synchronicity, which helps go forward faster if the strategy is a good one, and also helps recognize the folly of a bad strategy sooner – so that it can be recognized and abandoned or modified sooner than it might be if everyone is following their own path.

        Your thoughts?


        Posted by Rick Mueller | July 16, 2010, 6:00 pm
      • I’m uncomfortable assigning the task to a strategy until the strategy has been shown to be worthwhile, which in the case of business means profitable. I’ll even move that statement higher and say the same about a company’s vision. Perhaps the role of QA in a nascent market is to keep the vision and strategy grounded in reality where necessary so the founders and management do not lose sight of potential markets BECAUSE they do not align with the strategy.

        Interesting … I’m enjoying this line of thought immensely.


        Posted by cowboytesting | July 16, 2010, 11:11 pm
  2. First let me say that there is a LOT of good treatment in this article – and even some seriously sage wisdom (“there is no one way to do things for all companies”) which appears at first as common sense – but then we realize (again) that common sense just isn’t that common.

    Everything, including the definition of and approach to quality, must stem from strategy. If it supports the strategy it’s the best you’ll be able to do, even if your strategy is crap. If it doesn’t support the strategy, it can’t possible help and will very likely be a hindrance – or at least a waste (yes, we’re talking “muda” here, even in a disruptive environment).

    Two quick clarification points here on the general discussion, if you would allow. The first is the claim that disruption doesn’t happen until the market changes. Actually, the market for a disruptive technology or approach already exists in a latent form prior to the novel application of the technology and/or approach which constitutes the basis for a disruption. It may appear the other way around (because that latent market is “discovered” in the process of making the novel technology and/or business approach available, but if the market did not already exist, the potentially disruptive approach would wither on the vine before it could gain sufficient momentum (read “cash flow”) in order to become dangerous.

    The second subtle (but important) distinction to be made is that companies are not disrupted (or disruptive, at least in the Christensen definition). INDUSTRIES become disrupted, and usually as a result of a large number of small entrants attempting to combine/create a “just right” (usually novel) approach to solving certain problems which could be (or could have been) solved by existing technology and methodologies but were not due to the expense or learning curve associated with it. This distinction between company and industry focus is often lost in the discussion on Disruptive Innovation because the industry being disrupted is almost always dominated by an oligarchy, and thus appears to be company-centric, when in fact it is not.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article and for sharing the interest and enthusiasm we should all have about this topic.


    Posted by Rick Mueller | July 16, 2010, 12:26 pm
    • Those are excellent point, Rick. I agree completely with your correction about industries versus companies being disrupted. You are correct when you remind me of the distinction of a company versus and entire industry. The disruption to the industry occurs when the potentially disruptive innovation finally reaches the point of competition with existing technologies. A completely different market would not be disruptive. It’s only when customers begin selecting one technology over another that it effects the existing companies.

      I would disagree slightly about your apparent interpretation with regards to disruptive innovation and existing markets. The markets may in fact exist as you claim, but they are usually nascent to the point where the markets are not even aware of their own existence yet. The example of Honda’s entry into the recreational motorcycle market is a brilliant example of this situation, in my opinion. The market for recreational off-road motorcyclists may have been present in a rather abstract manner prior to the introduction of the innovative technology, but it was not self-aware to the point of knowing it wanted an off-road recreational motorcycle. It wasn’t until some one from Honda showed them to people that the markets became self-aware and moved on their impulses. In that case the company (or people in the company) took an active step but were also fluid enough to respond when the unanticipated nascent market became active. Indian and Harley Davidson weren’t, so they were disrupted.


      Posted by cowboytesting | July 16, 2010, 1:02 pm
      • > The markets may in fact exist as you claim,
        > but they are usually nascent to the point where
        > the markets are not even aware of their own
        > existence yet

        Now that you mention it, disruptive technologies do seem to many times be a solution looking for a problem. And just to bolster your case, consider the 3 1/2 disk drive example – same deal. That being said, bringing hydraulic cylinders to the excavator market (in the form of backhoes) did serve an existing need (that was previously served by manual labor) – so not all examples are consistent on this characteristic. Still – good food for thought. Thanks again.


        Posted by Rick Mueller | July 16, 2010, 7:47 pm
      • I hadn’t thought of it that way yet, but you’re absolutely correct. The situation is not one of markets being created or being exploited, but rather of unexpected synergies where markets and solutions are discovered simultaneously. The markets may have had a need, but they lacked the language to express it until the innovation gave them said language. Once those two met, it seemed inevitable. I would posit that sense of inevitability is the true hallmark of a disruptive innovation, something I’ve historically called a “game changer.”


        Posted by cowboytesting | July 16, 2010, 11:07 pm
  3. Thought provoking article. In capitalism two strategies exist: 1) First to market and 2) Superior quality at the same price.

    Innovation mostly exists in (1) and maturity mostly exists in (2). The role of the QA professional in (1) is to ensure that the balance is just right. For example, if the product was a car, the gas was development and the brakes was QA, the QA person should apply just enough brakes as to not let the car roll in the corner. Speed is everything!

    In (2) the role of QA is to ensure that the ride is a superior experience, all attributes of driving should speak of luxuriance and careful thought.


    Posted by Survivor | July 18, 2010, 5:35 am
    • Quality is one aspect of valuation, but you seem to be assuming feature offerings in your “first to market” statement. I think that is a mistake as Christensen specifically shows being first to market in sustaining innovations actually gains the market leader little to no market advantage over their later competitors. In fact the expense and risk of research and marketing is often detrimental to market leaders when it comes to innovations in existing markets. This may seem counter-intuitive until you factor in brand loyalty and conservative adopters who prefer to work with a single supplier than constantly being on an innovation treadmill.

      So if we factor in the feature set, suddenly a third strategy exists which is to offer similar or slightly lower features and quality at a steeper discount than risk would suggest. This is how foreign markets like India, China, Poland, and Korea have been successful at entering the markets. They can offer products perceived to be of only slightly less quality or features at a significantly lower price.

      This is where QA in a sustaining market can offer value by focusing the company on appropriate levels of innovation and general process improvement through activities like Six Sigma and Kaizen exercises. We have to remember that in a sustaining (and therefore conservative market) you never want to alienate your customers by expecting them to take on more risk than they are willing to take. This is why companies that make huge leaps between one release and the next will often fail. AutoCad’s “3D” design offering leaps immediately to mind as an example of this. Software and product engineers often become enamored of chasing what is possible. I feel its QA’s role to act as a resistor to this tendency and throttle this desirable activity down prior to reaching the customer.


      Posted by cowboytesting | July 18, 2010, 11:29 am

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