Why Testers Should Embrace Hanlon's Razor

Why Testers Should Embrace Hanlon’s Razor

Building positive working relationships with team members is critical for testers’ success. There is, however, a catch. Testing requires scepticism, questioning, and critique. Because of the nature of the role, some people may even perceive testing as a destructive activity.

Testers have to disagree, debate, and sometimes even fight with their teammates to roll out a high-quality product. For the most part, a tester’s job is to find faults in others’ work. Despite their best efforts to be diplomatic and tactful, testers may find themselves in a conflict. As a result, testers may have strained relationships with their teammates. 

This article will discuss a helpful reasoning tool called Hanlon’s razor from the perspective of a tester. You will learn how to apply it in your day-to-day life to navigate through stressful situations and improve your workplace relationship.

WHAT IS HANLON’S RAZOR?

A philosophy razor is a heuristic or a rule of thumb that allows you to eliminate or shave off unlikely explanations for a problem. Hanlon’s razor says, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  

Don’t assume the person responsible is malicious if something wrong happens because they might just be stupid! Different people have stated this principle throughout history in various forms. However, Hanlon’s razor is attributed to  Robert J. Hanlon, who shared it in a book containing a compilation of jokes in 1980.

In a broader sense, Hanlon’s razor says that you should not assume that people acted out of a desire to cause harm if there is a reasonable alternative explanation. The alternative experience can be Stupidity, Ignorance, Carelessness, Incompetence, Lack of Information, etc.

PUTTING HANLON’S RAZOR TO ACTION

Many relationships deteriorate as a result of wrong assumptions. When things do not turn out the way we want, we tend to assume the worst. In our heads, we make up stories that reflect our beliefs. Our natural tendency is to assume that others are ill-intentioned. Hanlon’s razor is a powerful mental model that can be applied to any situation where our first instinct is a negative assumption. Consider the following scenario.

  • Situation:  Assume that you join a new organization as a Test lead. You discover that the team produces poor bug reports, their test cases are poorly designed, there is no automation in place, and their testing techniques are ineffective. 

Flawed thinking: The team is unskilled and produces only mediocre work. Did I make a mistake by joining this team/organization? Was I tricked into joining a terrible team?

Hanlon’s razor:  

  • The team may not have the necessary guidance as they did not have a leader to coach them
  • They might have cut corners to fulfill the demands and needs of the business. Let me have one-on-ones with my new teammates to learn more about them. 
  • The team may not be getting enough time to automate tests, however, I can accelerate the Test Automation with powerful low code tools like Testsigma

You can employ Hanlon’s razor in various situations where you suspect bad intentions by a person towards you. Here are five hypothetical situations where you, as a tester, might fall victim to your bias and how Hanlon’s Razor can help you reason better.


  • Situation 1: “Mark(my manager) has not invited me to the sprint planning meeting.”
  1. Flawed thinking: “Mark does not like me. Mark feels that I am incompetent and I cannot contribute to sprint planning”.
  2. Hanlon’s Razor: “I have no specific reason to think Mark is unhappy with my work. He may have forgotten to add me…let me talk to him”. 

  • Situation 2: “Peter(the product manager) did not consider my idea/suggestion for the new feature.”
  1. Flawed thinking: “Peter is trying to get back at me because I contradicted his idea last time.”
  2. Hanlon’s Razor: “He may have a better idea or genuinely believed that my idea won’t work.” 

  • Situation 3: “ Dave(the developer) has rejected most of my bugs.”
  1. Flawed thinking: “He is seeking revenge because of what I said in the last meeting. He wants to damage my credibility.” 
  2. Hanlon’s Razor: “There could be several reasons for rejecting the bugs. For instance, the requirements may have changed lately without my notice. Let me look at the comments to find out more”.

    Also, here is a useful article that has some tips for writing good bug reports.

  • Situation 4: “ It has been two days since Dave has not replied to my message.”
  1. Flawed thinking: “Dave is being rude and disrespectful; he is trying to insult me.”
  2. Hanlon’s Razor: “Dave may be busy with the production issue detected yesterday and forgot to reply. ”

  • Situation 5: “ Tyler(the tester from another team) refused to assist me on a task.
  1. Flawed thinking: “Tyler is selfish; he only cares about his tasks.”
  2. Hanlon’s Razor: “Tyler already has a lot on his plate to help me out. He is currently working on an important project”.

Remembering Hanlon’s Razor helps keep certain emotions like anger and stress in check when someone does something that annoys you. 

HANLON’S RAZOR ENHANCES TRUST AND IMPROVES WORKING RELATIONSHIP

Trust is the foundation of every successful team. Lack of trust directly impacts the productivity of the team.  Incorrect assumptions about others and their intentions will only make others lose trust in you. Assuming ill intentions can keep us from forming stronger bonds.

Trust is the notion that others do not intend to harm you. Hanlon’s Razor helps foster trust by keeping your biases at bay that may damage a tester’s relationships with their teammates. Furthermore, it saves you from unnecessary mental distress. When you fail to apply Hanlon’s razor, you may waste your time and energy by focusing on the wrong things. 

Testers often work in high-pressure situations like late-night releases, fire-fighting in case of production issues, tight schedules, unclear and changing requirements, etc. Overthinking can develop as a result of stress and anxiety.

Overthinking harms relationships and spreads a negative vibe in the workspace.  Hanlon’s razor enables a tester to prevent overthinking. Assuming the best intentions in others can help you cultivate a great attitude and strengthen workplace relationships. Additionally, it ensures that you run into lesser confusion and conflicts.

LIMITATIONS OF HANLON’S RAZOR

Hanlon’s razor is a valuable reasoning tool for testers to improve their work relationships. It’s not a universal rule. Just like any other heuristic, Hanlon’s razor is fallible. Hanlon’s razor is a guiding principle for quick decision-making, but it may not always guarantee the correct conclusion.

  • Be aware of genuine hatefulness. Hanlon’s razor does not imply that actions are never motivated by wrong intentions. Some people are malicious, and their actions are meant to harm others.
  • Use your common sense to identify if someone is plotting against you.  If it’s evident that someone is trying to harm you on purpose, take steps to safeguard yourself.
  • Use Hanlon’s razor with caution. When applying Hanlon’s Razor, do not ignore evidence, facts, and data.  Ask yourself – 
  • Does this person have a track record of being evil to you or anyone else?
  • Does this person have a solid reason to dislike you? 
  • Does the person realize how inconsiderate their actions are?
  • Can this person’s behaviour be explained by incompetence, ignorance, forgetfulness, or another reason? 

Despite the limitations, Hanlon’s Razor can be a useful starting point in most situations, for a tester, as it eases cognitive overload. Because not assuming the worst helps you to think clearly and rationally.

CONCLUSION 

The people and process decide whether a project succeeds or fails.  As Gerald Weinberg rightly said, “Whatever the problem is, it’s always a people problem.”  

Testers and developers can work more productively if they don’t assume the worst about each other – Hanlon’s Razor guides our everyday actions by avoiding unreasonable assumptions and looking at things more positively.

As a result, it helps us build more robust and better relationships at work by being less judgemental.  Developing an environment of trust makes everything work seamlessly. Hanlon’s Razor is a handy mental model that encourages you to look at negative experiences positively. 

Add Hanlon’s razor as a part of your thinking toolkit and use it to navigate stressful situations. Apply Hanlon’s razor the next time you suspect someone has bad intentions. Empathize with your colleagues and give them the benefit of the doubt.


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