cartoon houseby Phillis Lew, CEO of XBOSoft

I’ve been to many sessions on software testing metrics where the instructor will discuss the Hawthorne Effect, named after lighting and environmental change experiments done in the late 20’s and early 30’s in a manufacturing facility to determine the effects on factory workers’ productivity. When applying the results of these experiments to software testing, most will then discuss testing metrics such as the number of test cases written or defects found, and the unexpected consequences or changes in behavior that can result from using such metrics.

But I think we are missing the true significance of the Hawthorne Effect. First, the Hawthorne Effect was based on several experiments. Not only lighting was varied, but also many other factors like break times, food, and work hours. Secondly, the interpretations of the Hawthorne experiments vary, and many researchers have derived different conclusions. Some of their conclusions I summarize as the Hawthorne Lessons:

Hawthorne Effect Lessons

  1. Workers care that you pay attention to them and thus any change could result in higher productivity.
  2. Group belonging is a key factor in understanding the social aspects of productivity, whereby a group may set the par on how much any individual should produce.
  3. Payment schemes where employees are rewarded both as individuals and a group can have a high impact on productivity.
  4. Food and breaks, their quality and quantity can also impact productivity.

It’s true that tying the Hawthorne Effect to testing productivity and defects – whereby you shouldn’t measure defect counts for the sake of not rewarding cosmetic defects – is a good start. However, keep in mind that the Hawthorne experiments were carried out in a factory in the suburbs of Chicago with workers in manufacturing. Therefore, those experiments can’t be directly applied to knowledge workers. (Factory workers producing electrical relays cannot be compared to knowledge workers producing test cases or finding defects.)

I think the big lesson from the Hawthorne Effect isn’t about how measuring certain factors can affect tester behavior. Rather, the big take away is that whatever you do to the context of a worker can affect their behavior and the results.

Context, as we know, is a big word. It could mean lighting as it did in the factory experiments. But for knowledge workers, we can apply these Hawthorne Lessons to Agile and to today’s working environment.

  1. Pay attention to your team as a team, and as individuals. We don’t change a lot from the time we grow up. We all want attention. It’s human nature. In the Hawthorne experiments, they changed lighting and dimmed lighting and both increased productivity just because it showed they were being noticed.
  2. Group belonging in Agile means sense of team and collaboration. Don’t just go through the motions of Agile and carry out your meetings as an obligation.
  3. Payment and reward. Reward your team and employees fairly according to the quality of the work they do. Part of quality could be quantity (productivity) but a large part should be based on effectiveness and satisfying the end user/product owner.
  4. Food and breaks. I’ve seen many companies in the Bay Area providing all the food you can eat in their break rooms, along with meals, gyms and dry cleaning. Of course, their goal seems to be to make you feel comfortable and to make your life convenient so you can get more work done. We all subconsciously know that. However, it does lead indirectly to more collaboration and communication because you’ll be doing all of these things – eating, working out, getting a haircut – at the office with your coworkers. We all know that some of the biggest decisions or ideas don’t take place in conference rooms.

So the next time someone mentions the Hawthorne Effect as it relates to software testing, think about the positives you can gain from the Hawthorne experiments. Remember that it is not about measuring software defects and getting unexpected or undesirable results. It’s really about what we can do to our context, which includes environment and many other variables, to increase the quality of our work and the quality of our lives. What experiments will you try?