Testing to Failure

Testing machinery versus testing people

15 years ago audio and video production was in the throws of an exciting, if sometimes painful, transition from proprietary and expensive purpose built hardware systems to software/computer based systems. The advantages offered by these software systems were compelling enough to seduce many early adopters to risk trying them. There were a lot of problems: crashes, lost data, and ultimately a lot of lost time and aggravation.

At that time I was managing a technical aspect of the business I work for, and as such one of our jobs was to configure and test such systems prior to them being sent to customers in the field. I learned very quickly that there are two fundamentally different approaches people take in the testing process.

  1. Testing to Pass — These systems were often so cantankerous, and we had so many to do, the overwhelming temptation was to get everything working (not easy) and then send it on. Once the system can go through all of the basic functions and not have an error it would be said to be “functional.”
  2. Testing to Failure — When you worked these systems hard for a period of time, continually pushing their limits, such as creating a file with thousands of edits and trying to play through them, or engaging and disengaging different aspects under different conditions, the systems would eventually reach their tolerance and crash.

Knowing the actions that tended to cause the systems to fail told us a lot more than the ones they would pass. This enabled me to develop a set of procedures and benchmarks to objectively determine the solidity of a system before signing off on it. In my view this was the only responsible way to let them enter the field, where users were counting on them for their jobs.

That’s machinery.

Testing people is a whole different universe. Where, at what point, under what circumstances and in what capacity will someone fail us? What are the boundaries? What can we count on? We understandably want to know this before we put our eggs in that basket. People will always fail in one way or another. Testing a person to failure is not that hard to do, especially if you know likely weak spots. But, finding out is damaging and even cruel in a way. While it may seem necessary as part of some type of a vetting process it isn’t productive. In addition to the damage, it doesn’t even establish a reliable failure point that can be used later because it’s inherently a moving target. We, to use the technical/lab terminology, are already in the field, with many forces acting on us dynamically. We aren’t always reliable and we don’t always react predictably, especially when under stress from other things going on in our lives.

People need to be built up, and when we are the things we can achieve are significantly greater than when under duress. Rather than pushing and testing our failure points it’s much more productive (and humane) to find our passing points and build upon those.

It’s okay to push people at times. Discomfort, urgency, and other stressors are not always bad for us, and we’ll often respond well. We can usually raise our performance level in some domain, and when we pass those tests we can move on to new heights that often make us better or more fulfilled. But it can take a toll. Small cracks can begin to form if we push too far, and if they go unnoticed and untreated weakness is revealed, sometimes dramatically.

Emotional stress is the most dangerous because it’s inherently not rational. It’s very difficult to manage our emotions and the actions associated with them even under the best of circumstances. Pretty much everything has an emotional component to it so it’s a good idea to be cautious at all times.

Be sensitive to putting someone under stress. You may need to in order to get a job done, to move a relationship off center, or get something else you want in life, but the responsible person should have an ethic of taking care of the concerns of others. Carefully weigh the value/benefit of what you want or are trying to accomplish against the potential damage of putting another person through the ringer to get there. Are you being selfish or insecure, or is it really necessary? There is something to be said for leaving well enough alone.

Likewise, if you find yourself under stress it’s prudent to consider the upsides. Some people avoid any kind of stress in their lives, and as a result often don’t reach their potential. It’s okay to be under stress at times. It’s important to recognize the value of rising to the challenge at hand. You can accomplish a lot in your personal and professional life if you are willing to take some risks and endure some pain. But if the stress is too great, or if the value isn’t there, then stop. Pushing yourself to the breaking point is not good for you, or for anyone in your sphere of influence because this is where it gets highly emotional, which means judgement gets clouded, and that’s usually where bad things start to happen. Step back, gather yourself, and take some time to evaluate what you need to do.

I don’t advocate running away, but when you have to I think there are ways to gracefully disengage that keep yourself in tact and do relatively little damage to others. In fact, when enough skill is applied others often won’t even know you’ve disengaged, which can also have the benefit of taking care of their dignity, not to mention avoiding excessive damage to them or a relationship.

The point is…failure is readily attainable with people just as it is with machines. While you can foster conditions that make you or others prone to failure, it doesn’t really tell you all that much, and all involved are generally better off if instead you work toward conditions that promote success. Unlike machines, which always wear down, people get stronger and more reliable under positive conditions. It’s harder. It requires a lot of emotional maturity, wisdom and skill. But it makes a better outcome for everyone.

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