Negative Positive


DeMarco and Lister talk about an organization's abilityor inabilityto live with uncertainty. Their book helped me understand what was going on in that place. A can-do organization has zero tolerance for uncertainty. (That's inherent in the "total commitment" principle.) So, as Demarco and Lister point out, although a can-do organization may not blame someone for being wrong, it will always blame people for not knowing. And when a can-do organization eventually finds it can't do, it flies into a complete tizzy where the blame may really hit the fan.

On our project, the combination of escalating failure and the organization's demands to state the unknowable and commit to the undoable proved too much to bear for the managers above me. They cracked and began lying to the PMO. I got out when I understood what was happening, so I wasn't there for the inevitable blame storm that followed the project's end.

I've described an extreme example of an institutionalized can-do culture. But what happened on this software project happens to some extent on projects everywhere. According to DeMarco and Lister, "Our infatuation with positive thinking and a can-do attitude has fixated us on the best outcomes as we ignored the various realities that could make such outcomes impossible" [3]. And, from the same book: "We are all enjoined to adopt a can-do mentality in our work. And there's the rub. Saying the name of a risk is an exercise in can't-do. Risk discovery is profoundly at odds with this fundamental aspect of our organizations" [4].

In fact, if we agree with Ehrenreich, it's profoundly at odds with this fundamental aspect of our society, not just our organizations.

And yet, as testers (and project managers) we have no choice. However optimistic we may be in our personal lives, we must be pessimists in our work. We cannot allow our society's "relentless promotion of positive thinking" to sabotage our critical thinking skills and our realism about risks. Our job is to call attention to reality-whatever our managers may think, and however much we dislike and fear it.

Ehrenreich argues for an outlook she calls "post-positive thinking" [5], where we all exercise our intelligence skeptically and strive for realism. Bright-sided should be a standard reference work for testers. 


  1. Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009.
  2. DeMarco, Tom and Lister, Timothy. Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects. Dorset House, New York, 2003.
  3. Ibid., 16.
  4. Ibid., 114.
  5. Ehrenreich, 195.

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