The fine art of being precise
Jon Bach this morning wrote a post about how we need to be precise in our thinking. Thank you Jon, its a lovely honest piece with lots of wisdom. But it got me thinking how sometimes precision can let us down too. For instance, we can get fooled into thinking that being precise always matters. There are many situations where vagary(what a wonderful word!) is incredibly useful.
When my husbands asks me how my day was, I don't reply with "What do you mean by day?", instead I typically respond with 'fine' or something equally inane. What's important here is not the precision of the question or even the precision of the answer. My husband's not that interested in my day at all but it's his way of asking "are you ok?". My answer though perhaps a little short, is important too, though it's not really the answer that matters, its the tone of my answer that he's listening out for.
You see this vagary in software teams that work closely together. Over time, these teams have developed their own language and don't feel the need to question every definition. Team members pick up cues from body language and follow unwritten rules without much thought. I see this ability to follow such rules without question as a way of building trust. Often teams that work together for a while just 'know'. They've built up a certain amount of tacit knowledge which doesn't need to be openly discussed.
Unfortunately many of us have, at one point in time, worked in situations where this culture (for want of a better word) is not so healthy. I worked in one such company where open questioning was implicitly discouraged to the point where a developer worked on the wrong story for a whole iteration. I've seen many a tester battered and torn from attempting to pull down those unwritten walls of silence and ambiguity.
But what's important here is we recognise that in certain situations its appropriate for us to be loose in our language. In fact, I often hold off from being precise especially if I'm new to a team or client. Instead, I sit and listen, waiting for ambiguity to bubble up and emerge. This intentioned act of silence allows me to witness rather than be told where implicit assumptions may fester.
So while being able to be precise is an important testing skill, another important one is the ability to identify when and where precision is most required, and when and where we can allow ourselves to be a little more accommodating.