I’ve just finished reading Scott Berkun’s new book, The Dance of the Possible – “The Mostly Honest, Completely Irreverent Guide to Creativity”. As with his previous books, it makes for easy reading and he makes his points clearly and honestly. I read this book based on enjoying a couple of his other works – in the shapes of Confessions of a Public Speaker and Ghost of my Father – and wasn’t anticipating the amount of testing-related goodness I found in his new one!
In just the second chapter, Scott tackles the tricky topic of where to begin when starting a piece of creative work. He talks about taking an exploratory approach:
The primary goal when you’re starting creative work is to explore, and to explore demands you do things where you are not sure of the outcome. There will be false starts, twists, turns and pivots. These should be welcomed as natural parts of the experience, rather than resisted as mistakes or failures.
Exploratory testing, anyone?! One of the joys of taking a session-based exploratory testing approach in my experience is the uncertainty of what information we’ll learn about our product in each session – this is so much more rewarding for the tester than knowing they’ll just report a “pass” or “fail” at the end of following a test case, for example.
As Scott moves on to methods for finding ideas (in chapter 4), one of my favourite tools for test planning and reporting makes an appearance:
Another approach to finding interesting combinations is called a mind map. On a large piece of paper write your main goal, subject or idea down in the center and circle it. Then think of an attribute, or an idea, related to the main one and write it down, drawing a line back to the main idea. Then think of another and another, connecting each one to any previous idea that seems most related.
Keep drawing lines and making associations. Soon you’ll have a page full of circles and lines capturing different ways to think about your main thought.
Exploratory testing puts the onus on the tester to come up with test ideas and this seems to be one of the biggest challenges for testers moving from a scripted approach, “how will I know what to test?” The skill of coming up with test ideas is one that requires practice and mind maps are a great way to both organize those ideas and give the tester a way to visualize their ideas, start to combine (or separate) them, and so on.
In chapter 5, Scott talks about creative projects being “a dance between two forces, expanding to consider more ideas and shrinking to narrow things down enough to finish” and how this very idea can be challenging for those who focus on efficiency:
Looking back on a finished project, you might think the time spent exploring ideas that didn’t get used was wasted. It’s easy to believe you should have known from the beginning which ideas would work best and which wouldn’t. This is an illusion. Creativity is exploration. You are going into the unknown on purpose. You can only learn about ideas as you develop them, and there’s no reliable predictor of which ones will pay off and which ones won’t. Certainly the more conservative you are in the ideas you pick, the more predictable the process will be, but by being more conservative you are likely being less creative and will discover fewer insights. Arguably the more creations you make the better your intuition gets, but you won’t find any successful creator, even the legends, who gets it right all the time.
People obsessed with efficiency have a hard time accepting this truth. They would also have a very hard time being at sea with Magellan, working with Edison in his lab or with Frida Kahlo in her art studio. They’d be stunned to see the “waste” of prototypes and sketches, and mystified by how many days Magellan had to spend at sea without discovering a single thing. Discovery is never efficient.
I see this “dance” a lot and it’s the natural tester dance between doing more testing (“consider more ideas”) and calling “good enough” (“narrow things down enough to finish”). I think these words from Scott are a great way to express the benefit of more creative testing in helping us better assess risks in our products:
Certainly the more conservative you are in the ideas you pick, the more predictable the process will be, but by being more conservative you are likely being less creative and will discover fewer insights.
Scott’s new book was a fairly short and enjoyable read. I always say that testing is a creative endeavour – seeking to counter the idea that testing is repetitive, boring work whenever I come across it – so Scott’s words on creativity will be a handy reference in this regard.