dinsdag 26 juli 2016

Ratting out the Loaded Term

In the last couple of years my job has shifted from 'hands-on' tester to a more advisory, coaching, leading and determining strategy kind of role. It has it's downsides of not experiencing the thrill of finding a serious bug as much any more and I miss the - almost Star Trekkian - feel of going where no (wo)man has gone before in different applications. 

The upside is that I think my work has become enriched with all kinds of other things that are affiliated with software- and system testing. When I think of talks like 'the tester is dead' or 'testing is dead' and the discussions that followed about the future of testing and the different roles in testing, I think one of the paths to grow to is becoming an adviser on how to gain insight and grip on risks in an organisation that flows from implementing new software- and system components but also to help organisations and the people in that organisation to be more efficient and effective in getting that insight, that can -but is not limited to- testing. Whether this is by coaching people, helping setup an automation framework or even teaching testing to non-testing personnel. 

But that is not what this blog is about. This blog is about something that I noticed during the years that I have been involved in testing, but is not necessarily a testing thing. My job involves a lot of explaining, clarifying and teaching. But also learning. Until recently I was unaware of this phenomenon that apparently has a big impact when trying to change things in an organisation; it's a thing called 'the loaded term'.  The skill that comes with it is a skill I call 'Ratting out the Loaded Term'. 

The loaded term is a term or a jargon that is or has already used in an organisation, group or team (etc.). This term is misused or doesn't have a particular positive vibe to it. When people speak of the term, they do that with a certain amount of cynicism. When you talk about this term with those people the body language shows 'anger', 'dislike', 'disgust' and sometimes a 'rolling eyes' movement is seen accompanied by a *sigh*. Sometimes somebody starts laughing, not because it's so funny, but because of pure contempt. This is the impact of the loaded term. Knowing about the loaded term is important when you want to get your message across, not knowing about the loaded term will let you fail in your endeavors. 

A loaded term in the testing community is for example 'best practice'. There's a whole group of testers that dislike, even scorn this term. Best practices don't exist; only good practices. The are dependent on the context. But an average person still uses the phrase 'best practice' without knowing this is a 'loaded term' within that group of testers. When that person would give a presentation in that group of testers a disaster is bound to happen.

I would argue that the group of testers in this case would be a bit lenient and would explain with a certain amount of patience and kindness to that person that there is no such thing as 'best practices'. I could also argue that the person in this case could also have done some research on this group of testers before doing the presentation; communication is a two-way-kind-of-thing, n'est çe pas? But is this to be expected of someone? Expectations and assumptions... well we know what we say about assumptions in the testing world!

In my own example the 'loaded term' was "expert lead" and also "thought leader". Apparently the terms were used once and they weren't perceived as positive roles. In the past it was a role people got reckoned on in their appraisals or expectancy of the organisation of those roles were not aligned. When trying to set up a sort of knowledge community this proved to be a problem for me, when encountering these loaded terms. I even found out that using affiliated terms were not-done. So what to do. I needed people, not necessarily the most knowledgeable on that specific topic, to be the 'go-to-person', a person that could get colleagues together to discuss a problem on a certain topic to come to a solution and to share that knowledge. I also needed a lead-of-leads, somebody that could help the leads to be able to organize and coach in their group of expertise (the go-to-for-help-and-coaching-person). 

During a meeting about this role (roles) I anxiously tried to avoid the term and became very focused to talk about the tasks and activities of the role. But nonetheless the question came; how do we call those people? The need to have a stamp (name) for the role was very real and not to be ignored. I confess: I "uhmmed" a bit here. 

But suddenly I said 'Mumsel'. Why I said *that* I don't know. It was a word from my imagination*. It sounded funny, it didn't have any meaning. And that was exactly the point!
So I started defining the 'mumsel' from scratch. The mumsel is an employee who independent of seniority has the task to be the single point of contact for a subjectmatter. When a question, problem of interesting topic around the subjectmatter arises. He/she has to organise a meeting (of some sorts) where the question, problem or topic can be tackled with all other personnel involved with the topic. This is for the benefit of sharing the knowledge directly with every person that is involved. If the topic, question or problem is too specific for the whole group, he/she might be able to help him/herself directly of to redirect to the right person in the organisation. 

What I'm advocating here is that it is important to be able to rat-out the loaded term. Pinpoint it, discuss it and - without ridiculing or creating a whole new organisational vocabulary - redefine or recreate the needed term. Be aware though that only so much terms can be imaginary, non existing phrases; it's has a low saturation threshold. Imagine coming into an organisation where mumsels are organizing a brainwave session to tackle a problem on a topical. One would think to have landed in a sanatorium instead of an organisation with loaded-term-issues... on a second thought.... :-)

(*note here; I did some afterward research and the term 'mumsel' is sometimes used in childsplay at summercamps where they have to find the 'mumsel' (person in disguise), sometimes used as another word for 'mademoiselle' and sometimes to be used as 'my love' :-))