February 12, 2007

Best Practices Aren’t

Posted by Ben Simo

The first two of the Seven Basic Principles of the Context-Driven School of software testing are:

1. The value of any practice depends on its context.
2. There are good practices in context, but there are no best practices.

As a former quality school gatekeeper, I understand the value of standards – in both products and processes. However, I am concerned by the current “best practices” trends in software development and testing. The rigidity that we demand in product standards can hurt in process standards. Even the CMM (which is often viewed as a rigid process) has “Optimizing” as the highest level of maturity. A mature process includes continuous learning and adjustment of the process. No process should lock us into one way of doing anything.

Nearly 100 years ago, the industrial efficiency pioneer Frederick Taylor wrote “among the various methods and implements used in each element of each trade there is always one method and one implement which is quicker and better than any of the rest”.

I do not disagree that there may be a best practice for a specific task in a specific context. Taylor broke down existing methods and implements (tools) into small pieces and scientifically evaluated them in search of areas for improvement. The problem is that today's best practices are often applied as one-size-fits-all processes. The best practice for one situation is not necessarily the best for all other contexts. And a "best practice" today may no longer be the best practice tomorrow. This is actually the opposite of what Taylor did. Consultants and tool vendors have discovered that there is money to be made taking "best practices" out of one context and applying to all other contexts. It is harder, and likely less profitable, for the "experts" to seek out the best practices for a specific context. Taylor sought out and applied best practices to small elements. Many of today's "best practices" are applied at a universal level.

I am amazed by what appears to be widespread acceptance of “best practices” by software testers. As testers, it is our job to question. We make a living questioning software. We need to continually do the same for practices. Test your practices.

When presented with a best practice, consider contexts in which the practice is not the best. The broader the scope of the best practice, the more situations it is unlikely to fit. Don’t limit your toolbox to a single practice or set of practices. Be flexible enough to adjust your processes as the context demands. Treat process as an example and apply it where it fits and be willing to deviate from the process -- or even apply an entirely different process -- if it does not fit the context.

No process should replace human intelligence. Let process guide you when it applies. Don’t let a process make decisions for you.

Seek out continuous improvement. Don't let process become a rut.

Process is best used as a map; not as an auto-pilot.