Friday, December 11, 2015

Memory 103 - The alternate reality traveller's guidebook

There was a blinding flash of light, the world heaved and wrenched around you, as a portal closes behind you.  It worked, you've jumped reality - but which reality are you in?

You come across a stranger in the street.  What are you going to ask?

Alternate reality travellers have to be really good at asking questions to determine where they are.  Personally I always ask first about the Statue Of Liberty, as I remember an unfortunate reality where they blew it up (the maniacs).

"Ask a stranger" is the time traveller / alternate reality traveller's Google (providing that other stranger is not another traveller).  The questions usually seem bizarre and kind of dumb, but they provide vital information for a traveller in order to get their bearings.

So where am I going with this?  Remember previously we were talking about the psychology of time travel?  Especially our power to travel back through our memories and alter the past.  I also talked last time about how very fallible our memories can be - even when our recall of detail seems good.

The truth is then that we live in a mental alternate reality from each other.  Occasionally as a tester I can name that weird reality as the one where others have defined that "built means done", but I only find this by asking subtly.

I've actually been doing "academic" research into this by re-watching some sci-fi genre, especially Back To The Future.  Marty McFly when he accidentally goes back in time gets his bearings by observation and asking questions.  That unreliable time-machine the Tardis is not much better - it takes the Doctor where he's needed, but doesn't really tell him where he's landed.  He relies a lot on looking around, asking questions, and sometimes getting into trouble and captured to ask authority what's going on.

There's no doubt about it - questioning is the key to bridging that gulf, it's the key to getting information you need about what's going on internally within people.  More important "how they remember/perceive history".

At this point I thought this blog post was going well, however I noticed a little problem here.  I've been working a lot in facilitation this year at work, and as discussed previously this has primarily been about giving others room to express themselves.  Find out how they view testing, and try to shepherd and nurture their view.

But as important as this is, it's also important to note that to recap my previous statement that questioning is the "alternate reality traveller's Google (providing that other stranger is not another traveller)".  But of course that's exactly what other people are - fellow alternate reality travellers.  So in many ways your version of history has a validity which also needs to be shared!

And so as important as questioning is an important part of finding out how another person viewed a previous event.  It's important to follow that up with your version, to make them know there's a grey area.  If you find your viewpoints conflict, then you can talk about it.

A classic on which can come in from a meeting a couple of weeks ago, which everyone only vaguely remembers,

Padma:  Mei you said at the meeting last week you wold fix the problem with the Google account, is it done?
Mei:  No, I said we couldn't reproduce it, but I would try again to see if I could reproduce it - but only after I've finished the high level defects assigned to me.

So obviously there was a meeting a while ago, where this problem was discussed.  Whatever was discussed, Padma has gone away thinking "Mei promised she'd fix it" whilst Mei left thinking "Padma now knows I have other issues that need fixing first before I can even look into this".  Oops.

If human memory is so fallable, why don't we use an audit trails all the time?

This is a good point - writing things down is a really good way to get an auditable trail of consensus and agreement.  The problems is when people try to use it as a communication method - even email is a very slow way to hold a conversation.  It's quite possible to have a conversation which takes place over a month!

This is why we have meetings.  I know it can seem we just have meetings to have meetings sometimes, but the aim of having a meeting typically is as follows

  • get everyone involved in an issue into a room to talk.  Include people with knowledge of the area.
  • share information and analysis about the issue.
  • agree a plan of action to proceed

A key thing as a facilitator is to give people room to talk.  But also when a room either goes quiet or too impassioned, to stop and do a bit of a summary of what's happening.  Always driving towards that "agree action plan" once we have sufficient information in the room, and a consensus is being reached.

Of everything's that discussed, it's this action plan which maybe need to be written down, with the owner.  I always make a point of noting down such actions, repeating it back to the room at the time it's agreed, restating all the actions at an end of a meeting, and finally emailing it to all (with names of who's doing what).  The power of reminding people several times!

In the case of Padme and Mei, at the end of the meeting, maybe an action like,

Google account problem.  Mei has been unable to reproduce it, and will take another look once she's completed other higher priority tasks.  She will update us if it's not possible to take a look at it within by close of this week [Action: Mei]

Even so, the written word itself isn't infallible

As a kid, I always remember Han shooting first in that Star Wars scene with Greedo.  Rewatching it, I'm obviously mistaken!

I attend a lot of peer conferences, and I've been playing around recently with "playing secretary" and keeping notes so I can revisit what was said and explored.

After a recent conference, one of the speakers took to Twitter complaining that they felt personally attacked when one of the questioners called them a moron.  Intrigued I consulted my notes to see what I'd written for the exchange, which was,

"Question: (sounds like) less a team of specialists, but a team of “not my job” morons with no ownership"

So an open and shut case of the speaker making a big deal about nothing?  Maybe ... and maybe not.  It's interesting, because from my memory I actually seem to think the line was "less a team of agilists, more a team of high performing morons".  But I have something different written down, because of course I wasn't word for word copying what people said, but paraphrasing as I went.  Paraphrasing, the whole issues of the holes in our memory we've been exploring - it's all enough for there to make subtle difference in what we remember and what was said.

I also know from giving experience reports - a good experience report is honest, open, and really reveals a level of vulnerability in the speaker.  As such I've had questions asked of me where I felt the questioner was trying to be a bit "high and mighty and judgemental" to score cheap points, which I didn't appreciate.

Though I provided my notes to both the speaker and questioner in that incident, initially they had to resolve it just by talking through what happened, and how it'd made them feel.  Each was really living in an alternate reality where they saw that incident slightly differently.  Only through talking and reaching consensus were they really able to put it into each of their contexts, leave it in the past and move forward.

And so it is with all us alternate reality travellers ...

Coming next...

We've now covered why questioning, discussion and sometimes statements allow us to piece together our past.  But what makes a good question?  That we will explore a little more next time ...

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