Once again, a major implementation goes pear-shaped. On Thursday, March 27, Heathrow Airport opened Terminal 5 with great fanfare. It promised a revolution in passenger convenience, and included a new automated baggage handling system1. But things did not go well, and the opening weeks are sure to become a case study in project failure. Hundreds of flights to and from the terminal were redirected or cancelled. The stranded luggage mountain reached a peak of 28,000 bags, but appears to be declining with intensive manual effort.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of what I think went wrong in this specific case; I’ve mused about it on my own blog. But this implementation is part of a larger picture of bad decisions—expensive bad decisions—that have a wider impact than flight delays and missing luggage. The human factors here are the same as those that let the levees fail in New Orleans, and spread the Challenger across the Florida sky. Taken to national scale, they’re part of why we’re in Iraq.
Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child,
Anything can be.
Shel Silverstein, Listen to the Mustn’ts
We love heroes and leaders, from Alexander the Great and his iconic descendants2 to Captain Kirk and his. Whether real or fictional, they stretch the bounds of the possible. They show us a world where our fears don’t limit us, and inspire us to try to live there.
The problem is that great leadership is about more than “the vision thing” or being “the Decider”. A poor leader can sound like a great one by choosing a direction and sticking to it, counting on his “will” to carry him (and the people following him) over the obstacles that they encounter. And if the obstacles are small and their momentum great, that is all that’s needed. But that doesn’t make him a great leader. That makes him lucky, and luck runs out.
What a real leader needs is people who disagree with him. I don’t mean the needlessly contrary, the ornery and the difficult. I mean people who share his ultimate goal, but whose job and passion it is to pick holes in his plans to get there in order to improve them. Sometimes that’s the loyal opposition; sometimes it’s the court jester. Sometimes it’s citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. Sometimes it’s me.
Since human beings tend to be highly goal-oriented, establishing the proper goal has an important psychological effect. If our goal is to demonstrate that a program has no errors, then we shall tend to select test data that have a low probability of finding errors. On the other hand, if our goal is to demonstrate that a program has errors, our test data will have a higher probability of finding errors.
Glenford J Myers, The Art of Software Testing
Testers (like me) are, in the small scale, the disagreeable advisors to the king. We share the ultimate goal with our project managers: releasing the product to the admiring masses. But our job is to find problems, from the design stage through to the final build, so they can be fixed. To do that well, we must stand in opposition to the belief that the code, or the product, or the plan is bug-free. We start with the supposition that something is wrong and go looking for it.
This mindset never earns testers, or anyone who questions a leader’s vision, many friends. In the public sphere, where motivations are part of the discourse, it is taken as evidence of bias and a reason to ignore any inconvenient views. In the corporate world, it can lead to the perception that the testers are never satisfied, and can therefore be overruled at will.
Some must employ the scythe
Upon the grasses,
That the walks may be smooth
For the feet of the angel.
Some keep in repair
The locks, that the visitor
To the innermost chamber.
Philip Larkin, from The Dedicated
Being a tester, or any kind of disagreeable advisor, can be unglamorous and unrewarding. Our successes are rarely advertised. What leader proclaims, “I had this idea that I thought was good, but then my advisers pointed out that it was impractical”? I can think of one major cancelled plan in my own field, when the London Eye’s initial passenger run on the Turn of the Century was called off because of a failed safety test3. Usually, though, the successes are marked by delayed implementation dates or revised press releases. Not the stuff of fame.
But I believe that those of us who question leaders, who look for failures and are only reluctantly convinced of successes, are important. We can stop a bad idea before it becomes a bad plan, a bad product, a bad policy. I think we need more people like that in the wider world, whether it be consumers adopting a security mindset or citizens questioning government officials.
And even if all we do is teach our leaders the mantra reserved for those who ignore their disagreeable advisors, well, that too is a form of recognition.
Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova is God. And, if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out!
Susan Ivanova, Babylon 5