The importance of independence

How important are independent test resources for projects? That was the question we tackled recently by conducting a survey at an ignite conferenceThe results were decisive. From the 69 respondents, 73% agreed with the statement that independence...


How important are independent test resources for projects? That was the question we tackled recently by conducting a survey at an ignite conference

The results were decisive. From the 69 respondents, 73% agreed with the statement that independence in testing is ‘important’ or ‘very important’.

However, the notion of independence also conjures up a few negative connotations: an independent outfit has no deep understanding of a project, needs a full briefing, doesn’t understand how the organisation ticks, or how individual team members work and think.

In other fields, of course, independent testing is seen as an essential factor. Take MOTs, for instance - no one would want an MOT conducted by an individual car manufacturer, like Ford, for example. You might be worried that your Volkswagen wouldn’t pass the test… simply because it’s not a Ford!

In law, great value is put on the fact that judges remain completely independent from the proceedings. If this wasn’t the case, there would be accusations of bias or prejudice, and requests that the judge be changed.

No one argues here that it’s really a good idea, if the judge already knows the defendant, then the case would not last as long, because they know almost all the facts already. Instead, independence remains the correct way to do this - to start every legal case from scratch.

In medicine, numerous studies are carried out on the effectiveness of drugs. In a double-blind study, not even the doctors involved know whether they might be administering a new compound or a placebo.

And also in the private sphere, independence is a valued quality: whether it’s an external construction manager, an independent insurance broker, independent advice from a friend or acquaintance about a serious situation, or even just a casual conversation at the pub with complete strangers.

Ancient wisdom

And what about the cost of briefing an independent outfit? Yes, a certain amount of effort is required: you have to explain everything, even the implicit details, that you’ve known for years. And then something quite exciting often happens. The questions asked by the independent party often provide you with new insights and a new perspective on what you thought you already knew. This technique is nothing new and has been well known since before the time of one of the greatest independent thinkers, Socrates. With his theory of ‘maieutics’ (the art of giving birth to reason), Socrates got this procedure down to an exact science: it allows connections between facts to be explained, and to develop new knowledge from already known facts solely through intelligent questioning.

There are two steps in the process:

In the Socratic (elenctic) method, the main aim is to ‘shake up’ the opponent’s viewpoint. Incidentally, children can do this perfectly; they question everything incessantly, until you find yourself floundering. When testing, this method is very effective, for example, in requirements engineering; previously verified requirements are exposed as incomplete, inconsistent and ambiguous. The Socratic method here can only be applied exhaustively by independent colleagues, who are audacious enough to question everything and so, ultimately, develop a common understanding and knowledge base.

In the maieutics (protreptic) method that follows, the main aim is to take the opponent by the hand, and lead them to a better solution. In requirements engineering for example, this form of independent testing would lead the ‘opponent’ to a much more holistic view of the requirements concerned, possibly even to a glossary, and so on.

It is therefore, important to question assumptions and preconceived ideas. Thus, the need to brief independent parties, far from being a disadvantage, is actually a crucial part of the process of improving quality.

If that is so obvious, why do 26% of participants question the importance of independence in testing? We can only speculate that there are domains in which, because of a rather contained knowledge base (for example in mathematics), independence only brings negative consequences.

Presumably independence also brings about angst among arguably timid colleagues since they may worry about being judged.

And if we’re being entirely honest: anyone who knows the main intentions of this blog should question my independence regarding the question of independence! And perhaps that shows how we should all consider the importance of independence elsewhere too…

Posted by Frank Simon, Head of Research, SQS.