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G(r)ood Testing Volume 5 – Next: people aspects

  • 15/05/2014
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  • Posted by Derk-Jan de Grood
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People aspects are the next best thing to focus on when trying to increase the success chance of your IT project. Not surprising that there is an ever-growing interest in the human factors within IT. They do matter and influence the way we run our projects. But, and this might be a challenge for the technical people in IT, you need to pay attention to actually see and recognize the patterns.

In my book “the hero that guards my nightly rest” I outline the effect that fear has on the success of IT projects. I visit many companies, and in some a true fear and blame culture reigns. I see employees respond to this. E.g. by building extra slack into their planning or by omitting critical information from their management report. If the messenger is likely to get shot, it is best to bring only good news. Other typical reactions are to ignore or over-emphasize risks. The first saves you from reporting bad news and the later might change the manager’s mind. If he decides not to carry his plan through, you can’t be blamed for failing the new initiative.

Clearly it is hard to be innovative and improve in organizations that have a culture of fear. It makes sticking your neck out for something new an uncertain and risky business. Once I was hired as a test manager. I was the seventh test manager they hired within eighteen months. With each improvement proposal that I did, I was told that my predecessors had already tried something similar and were sacked because of it. You can imagine what that did for my enthusiasm to suggest new improvements.

Since that project I am more focused on fear and other people aspects. In discussions with stakeholders and project managers I listen to the arguments that they step up, but I also look for underlying emotions. By paying attention I start noticing that factual content is often not the primary driver. Fear and other emotions influence the decisions made by our manager, and the way they perceive our work. This has of course always been this way, but I see that it is been accepted and addressed more and more, also in a testing context.

An increasing focus on people aspects changes the way we do our testing. Testing used to be a top – analytical activity. While understanding how a system works and with the derivation of test cases we do a strong appeal to our left-brain. This left side stands for reason and factual thinking. Testing is no longer aimed at just finding errors. It contributes to confidence in the system and provides objective information on the actual project progress. It demonstrates that a risk or concern has been mitigated and the stakeholder needs to worry no more. If we focus on these goals, and challenge ourselves to think out of the box, testing becomes a very creative process.
Testers will be forced to trust their own feelings, and reflect on those of their stakeholders. Creativity, empathy resides in the right hemisphere of our brain. We’ll need to listen and to empathize with the people around us, understand their practices and the way they perceive the world. When reporting, we must translate technical details into a clear story that is both understandable and valuable to the beholder.

Another aspect of the human factor is vulnerability. Within SCRUM and Kanban team performance is key. Teams achieve the best results if they assign tasks assigned to those employees who are best suited. This only works best if team members are transparent in what they are good at and what they find difficult. There’s no point in showing of during the daily stand up. Showing vulnerability and admitting that you need help, is what enables other team members to help.
To play this game team members need to feel save and appreciated. What motivates team members, when do they get into the flow? When will they resist or get angry? Again, I try to listen to the arguments and search for underlying emotions simultaneously.

The people aspects form a primary success factor for our projects. It seems that there is a natural evolution. We had a focus on techniques; we improved our processes and methods. We embraced Agile, but still many projects fail. In our search for possible causes we encounter the next real problem: ourselves. So logically we need to focus more on the people aspects in order to understand our colleagues, project managers and stakeholders and become more effective in our collaboration.

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Derk-Jan de Grood

Derk-Jan de Grood works for Valori as senior test manager and Agile Transition Coach. His drive is to improve the visibility of testing in both agile and traditional organizations, by sharing his knowledge and experience by means of training, presentations, workshops and publications. He is a regular speaker at conferences like EuroSTAR, wrote several successful books on software testing and publishes articles for the major testing magazines. In 2014 he won the EuroSTAR Testing Excellence Award.

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