The Black Team - A Parable of Group Effectiveness

post by JGWeissman · 2011-04-22T02:37:08.383Z · score: 47 (40 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 21 comments

Management noticed that certain software testers were 10 to 20 percent better at finding defects than their peers. By putting these people on the same team, they reasoned, they could form a group that would be 10 or 20 percent more effective and then put the team to work testing the most critical system components.

It didn't turn out that way.

The individuals who made up the team were not exceptionally intelligent or talented, but they all enjoyed testing software and were better than average at it. When these like minded individuals were assembled, they they spent their working hours, lunches and sometimes free time collaborating on how to better find software defects.

Soon the members of team were twice and then dozens of times more effective than their peers, and they began to view their jobs not as testing software, but as breaking software. Team members took a well-deserved pride in their abilities and began to cultivate an image of villainous destroyers. As a group, they began coming to work dressed in black and took to calling themselves "The Black Team."

From The Black Team. (Hat tip to Adam "ata" Atlas and Mike Blume.)

21 comments

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comment by David_Gerard · 2011-04-22T08:49:29.625Z · score: 25 (25 votes) · LW · GW

You should emphasise that this is "a story about things gone terribly right."

comment by ata · 2011-04-22T22:52:57.484Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

(Or "fantastrophe" for short.)

comment by steven0461 · 2011-04-23T20:40:40.629Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Obvious next question: should LW have a black team dedicated to exposing locally popular bad reasoning? In my opinion, criticism is too important to be left to the critics.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-04-23T21:27:14.823Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I think that until we produce a critical mass of full time professional confessors, exposing bad reasoning should be everybody's responsibility and nobody's privilege.

(By "everybody's responsibility", I mean that if you, yes you reading this right now, notice bad reasoning you should expose it, not that you should expect someone else to do it because it is their responsibility too.)

(By "nobody's privilege", I mean that if you are exposing bad reasoning, you have to actually make the case that it is bad reasoning rather than wrapping yourself in the mantle of "exposing locally popular bad reasoning" as members of a dedicated group might feel compelled to do, and be willing to consider counter arguments that it is actually good reasoning after all.)

comment by steven0461 · 2011-04-26T19:20:33.844Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Criticism by a Black Team would probably feel less personal, and would involve less worry on the part of Black Team members that their criticism would be held against them.

comment by Petruchio · 2012-11-22T21:35:23.491Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is an interesting story illustrating the influence of a group’s culture and dynamic onto willing participants. Each member of the group shared a certain value and talent, and when brought together, they went into a positive feedback loop, and ended up optimizing their search for software defects.

The theatrics is a pretty time as well.

On the other hand, I imagine it would be difficult to replicate. In my experience, groups like these start off with two or three ‘heroes’, who take the charge down the road less traveled.

Has anyone had a group which parallels the black team above?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-22T04:26:37.133Z · score: -3 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I think the next paragraph is the most important:

Things soon began to get a little crazy. Team members began to affect loud maniacal laughter whenever they discovered software defects. Some individuals even grew long mustaches which they would twirl with melodramatic flair as they savaged a programmer's code. And the things they did to software went beyond all bounds of rational use testing and were more akin to software torture. The crazier things got, the more effective the team became.

This makes it sound more like a cult rather than a group of rational people working together. Reminds me of this and similar posts. So instead of "A Parable of Group Effectiveness," it's more like, "A Parable of Smart People Getting Sucked Into a Feedback Loop Causing Them to Confuse Their Sense of Group Identity With the Terminal Values of Their Employer."

comment by ata · 2011-04-22T05:38:55.421Z · score: 42 (40 votes) · LW · GW

This makes it sound more like a cult rather than a group of rational people working together.

...they "grew long mustaches which they would twirl with melodramatic flair as they savaged a programmer's code", for god's sake. This is just a group of people who decided to have fun with their identities, go about their jobs in a bit more theatrical a manner than usual, and make people's days more surreal, and managed to get their work done more effectively and more enjoyably in the process. (Rational doesn't mean boring.) I'm sort of used to random things in nearby memespace regions being accused of being cults, but this doesn't even seem to have the surface similarities that are usually brought up to support those accusations.

comment by Gray · 2011-04-22T23:20:23.562Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree entirely. I hate the idea that "rationality" is being identified with the way your dress and compose yourself. Also, I know there's a sequence post somewhere that basically says that being rational doesn't mean being dispassionate.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-04-22T23:33:50.917Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Also, I know there's a sequence post somewhere that basically says that being rational doesn't mean being dispassionate.

Perhaps you're thinking of Feeling Rational, one of my personal favorites.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-22T04:35:39.604Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Or to put a positive spin on it, it shows that cultishness can sometimes be used to do good, productive work.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-04-22T12:05:34.889Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I question even calling it "cultishness". An in-group, certainly.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-22T12:56:54.039Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I think calling your response "a positive spin" is conceding too much. The bottom line is:

the more effective the team became.

That's fact, not spin.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-22T13:06:49.303Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"...With the Terminal Values of Their Employer"

(blink)

Of what employer are you presuming quality code is a terminal value?

EDIT: Or, if I've misunderstood you... what employer terminal values are you presuming, here?

comment by randallsquared · 2011-04-22T16:21:54.503Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Uh, I think he's saying exactly that it wasn't.

And the things they did to software went beyond all bounds of rational use testing and were more akin to software torture.

That suggests that they spent way more time on ensuring quality that was actually merited by the goals of helping users.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-04-22T16:52:15.753Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If you read the whole article though (it's a page long!) it's clear that management loved it.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-22T19:33:00.086Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, this was what I meant.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-04-22T10:46:27.347Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Are you saying that rational people are not supposed to have fun?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-22T12:30:05.903Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, not at all! But it sounds like they developed a powerful sense of group identity and lost track of their goals. E.g.:

And the things they did to software went beyond all bounds of rational use testing and were more akin to software torture.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-04-22T16:30:09.589Z · score: 15 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Keep in mind that the word "rational" as used in this article does not have the technical meaning we use here at LW. As a software developer, I find that a lot of bug reports I receive come from that actual users exceeding all bounds of "rational" use of the software. And most of those, I fix, and I would have been better off with top notch testing department exceeding all bounds of "rational" testing to tell me about these bugs as I write the software and before it gets deployed to customers.

comment by roystgnr · 2011-04-23T15:18:19.209Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'd like to know what "software torture" means once the metaphor has been stripped. As it is, that phrase doesn't tell me what they're doing, but does tell me what I'm supposed to think about it, which combination is worrisome. Fuzz testing would probably be considered "torture" by anyone who hadn't heard of it and who didn't realize that criminals looking for software exploits were doing it too.