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Solve problems by cleaning your teeth

  • 18/11/2011
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  • Posted by EuroSTAR

It was a very tricky situation; why did the schedule run correctly in System Test, yet aborted at irregular intervals (and not always at the same place) in the UAT environment? Not a trivial matter, particularly when you consider how much time had already been lost in that environment because of “build issues”. The implementation date had been set in stone, and could not be easily moved – many suspected that the business manager had a bonus riding on implementation in the first quarter of the financial year. This was (almost) the last opportunity to achieve that goal. I went over the issues in my mind again. Same software in System Test and UAT? Check. Same infrastructure build in the two environments? Check. The list went on and on.

Have you been in similar circumstances, when faced with a problem that you have been over and over in your mind? It may be ‘work related’, but possibly completely different: my wife came home from her work one day with a set of conundrums that colleagues could try and solve to gain a (small) prize. One of them was the seemingly simple question: “what is black when you buy it, red when you use it, and grey when you throw it away?” The common theme between this ‘problem’ and that I faced when the UAT schedule inexplicably halted is that the answer is not obvious. No matter how long you thought about the black / red / grey problem, you have not solved it until you have solved it, and for this particular question, there is almost no incorrect solution that is near but not right.

For the black / red / grey problem, the answer hit me like a bullet between the eyes later the same day I had heard the question. In case you are wondering, the answer is ‘coal’ – when bought, it isblack, being used, it is burning, so is red, and when the fire is finished, all that is left is the ashes (grey). With hind-sight, the answer is blindingly obvious. The real problem is finding the answer! (And if you think about it, for many, many things, with hind-sight, the answer can be seen with a clarity that was not present previously).

The “bullet between the eyes” moment for the black / red / grey problem arrived when I was doing something completely different, in this case walking in the countryside, thinking about how to negotiate a hillside slope with the twin problems of a slippery path and cow dung. Thinking about something else! That was how it happened, described by Brett Gonzales as a “toothbrush moment”. This wonderfully descriptive term illustrates the processes of not thinking about ‘the problem’, but how to get the toothpaste onto the brush (an action we all do when driving on autopilot) and suddenly …… ping!

It is possible to have ‘toothbrush moments’ when engaged in all manner of things. Some of my best ones are when mowing the lawn, having a bath or walking between the train station and the office. You are doing something completely different when suddenly it hits you. That is the answer that you had been looking for. It is something to do with the way some minds continue to dwell on the matter in the background – and occasionally I wake up at 03:00 with the answer, a toothbrush moment when I am asleep!

Before finishing, may I give some words of warning about the use of the toothbrush? Firstly, it is not possible to use this ‘technique’ like a light, turning it on at will. Repeatedly cleaning your teeth will not always deliver the answer – otherwise Brett Gonzales would have the cleanest teeth around. The second point to make is that because you have an idea when cleaning your teeth (or whatever your best creative activity is) does not mean that it is necessarily ‘the solution’ – it still needs validation in appropriate ways.

So what was the problem between the System Test and UAT environments? It was down to the people running the tests. Those engaged in System Test did not know the existing business processes, whereas the UAT activity was performed by users (as the name suggests), with an intimate knowledge of the current processes. Sometimes, just sometimes, they slipped into LIVE-running when undertaking the UAT actions, rather than use the mended business activities, those that would be implemented by the new software. Obvious really – but it needed a toothbrush moment to see it. The answer enable implementation in the first quarter of the financial year, so presumably the business manager still got the bonus that was rumoured.

I had a ‘toothbrush’ moment when writing this article in mid November 2011. At the design stage on an agile project, there would be a challenge when processing data from the latest or a previous month for a second time. Space prohibits describing what needs to be done, but now I have the answer which came when I was doing something else – writing about “toothbrush moments”. How ironic is that!

So my advice to you is to always keep a pen and notepad by the toothbrush holder. You never know when you might need it.

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