Thinking about quality: who doesn’t want quality?

On 30 January 2021 I participated in the Quality Acceleration Peer Conference organized by Huib Schoots and Joost Voskuil. Participants were Alan Page, Areti Panou, Ash Winter, Bart Knaack, Conor Fitzgerald, Rouke de Jong, Gwen Diagram, George Dinwiddie, Janet Gregory, Joost Voskuil, Joost van Wollingen, Martijn Meijering, Rob Meaney, Vincent Wijnen - with Huib Schoots facilitating the peer conference. The main topics mentioned in the invite were: “How can you sell quality?”, “How can you convince people that quality can accelerate software delivery?”, and “What limitations or barriers do you hit?”

Reflecting during and after our discussions on these topics, I realized there are some interesting things going on about how we talk about quality and how to sell it. Enough interesting things to fill more than one blog post, so this will be a four-part series. And I might expand on some ideas in the series after that.

This is the second part. The first one about choosing your value system can be found here.

Everyone wants quality, right?

In the previous post I distinguished two definitions of quality. If we proceed with the second and more interesting one, value to a person who matters, I would argue that everyone wants quality and is already doing their best to get it. The alternative would be that some people are not doing their best to get the things they value - which seems absurd to me.

Of course, truth comes easy when it’s in the form of a tautology. I can always do something “as soon as possible” if I claim that the time when I do it, by definition was the soonest possible time I could do it. Yet that’s not what we mean when we say “as soon as possible”. The same applies to what I said about quality. “We all want the best possible outcome.” is both true and not very helpful.

Part of breaking up the tautology in something more interesting is asking: do you actually know what the best possible outcome is? And an even scarier question: would you recognize the best possible outcome when it would happen? To get quality, you need to figure out what you value, recognize potential for it in what happens, and nurture that potential into something real. Each of these is a challenge on its own and that’s before we take into account you’re not your own isolated little universe. So if you ever get real quality, luck was definitely involved.

Or to rephrase this argument in a positive light in Norm Kerth’s words: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

All of this to say that there’s something weird going with selling quality. Everyone wants it and is trying to get it. It’s selling people something they want for a price they are willing to pay. So it should be the easiest sell ever, yet it isn’t.

Maintaining quality and increasing quality are two different games

The chef Marco Pierre White has said that gaining 3 Michelin stars requires you to play an offensive game, while maintaining them requires a defensive game. (To which he added that playing a defensive game is boring.) Something similar happens when we talk about quality: we focus on getting quality where it isn’t (yet). There is the idea of “amplifying the good” and “turning things to eleven”, but even those are focused on improving the current situation. Annoyingly, it seems we need to be continually improving to be able to keep delivering something that’s good enough.

In this sense, quality is less about desirable characteristics and more about solving problems. A helpful definition of problem in this context is Jerry Weinberg’s “A problem can be defined as a difference between things as perceived and things as desired.” Which tells us there are three problem areas when it comes to problems: perception, desire, and how to bridge the gap between the two. And there’s an implied fourth: balancing the needs of everyone touched by the problem and/or by the solution.

Exploring these four areas is worth a series of blog posts, so for now let me just repeat the challenge: quality is about the right perception, the right desire, the right means, and about the right balance between yourself, others and context. So when you try to sell quality, the problem is that people don’t see what you see.

So are we selling or not?

How do you get people to see what you see? Selling, as in persuading and convincing, might not be the best answer here. If I try to sell you quality that way, I am implying - or perhaps I’m even being explicit about it - that you don’t see the problem, or the solution, or both. I’m selling you quality, because you are seeing things wrong and I am seeing them right. Even if you are right and they are wrong, that probably isn’t the best approach. (For what “best” might mean here, see the previous post in this series.)

Another issue with convincing and persuading is that we can have an idealized view of it - believing that the best arguments will prevail. That view ignores the social aspect of discussion and agreement. In a recent Twitter thread, David McRaney, author of the book You Are Not So Smart, says that “When given options, you tend to pick the one that is easiest to justify, not the one that is ‘best’.” and a little later “Reasoning is coming up with justifications - plausible explanations for what you think, feel, and believe, and plausible means that which you intuit your trusted peers will accept as reason-able.”

So if we accept the social nature of agreement, that it’s less about being correct about the outside world and more about reaching consensus (or consent) with each other, then the framing of quality as something to sell is at best too limited and counterproductive at the worst. What if instead of selling, instead of persuading, we start thinking in terms of influencing, as Esther Derby explains in the fifth episode of her Change by Attraction podcast. And what if we start thinking in terms of collaborating to quality?