One very simple tip to help teammates connect

A couple of years ago, I started working with a new development team. As a coach, I spend the first few days observing behaviours and saying very little beyond a joke here and there.

Well, this team didn’t seem to have a process or technical problem, but I noticed a strange trend at their morning standups. People were being a bit “bitchy” to each other and focusing on people rather than on the work to be done.

You could hear things like

“well, my card is still there because I have been spending all day reviewing Frank’s pull request, not great…”

or

“I was writing the new stories but then Jack changed his mind… again…”

et cetera, I’m pretty sure you know the drill.

So on day 3 I went to the standup and I said, folks, let’s do an experiment. Before you say anything, you have got to say something nice about one of your teammates, shall we try?”

People looked at me like if I had seven heads, so I went “I’ll go first. Frank, you’re looking good today, I like your shirt, very smart”

People laughed. Then they tried.

I could see they were spending some time trying to find something nice to say, they were looking at something they liked about their teammates.

As humans, we are very good at finding flaws in people, on the other hand, we need to make an effort to find something we like about them, but if we try, we can discover something that we like, helping us connect.

Another consequence of this approach was that people realised their behaviour was not acceptable without being told and felt that they came up with the idea of reducing the bitching remarks.

All in all an easy win with very little effort.

WARNING: This approach won’t produce any positive effect if the hostility between team members derives from long-standing hatred, but it works very well with newly formed teams where people are trying to make themselves noticed sometimes using means that might be confrontational to their teammates.

 

Can we train ourselves to be more empathetic?

how_does_that_make_you_feel_

For a good while, I have been thinking more and more about the impact of our behaviour on our success and the success of the organisations we are part of. This brought me to observe people’s behaviour in trying to achieve a goal and the different reactions that each approach caused.

I have also done some experiments myself, trying to achieve the same goal using different behaviours on purpose.

The differentiator in the behaviours I have been observing is empathy

The subjects I have observed are of the type: developer, tester, analyst, business stakeholder, manager, leader.

What I found out is that the difference in the success of people with high empathy versus the less empathetic ones is astonishing. It is a different ball game. Empathetic people, get things done while building strong relationships and creating an enjoyable environment.

On the other hand, I have seen extremely skilled and capable people struggle to get anything done because their lack of empathy for their teammates made them choose behaviours that instead of achieving their goal, frustrated them and in some extreme cases made them withdraw into a corner full of anger and resentment with a common mantra: “they are idiots and they don’t understand”.

Being very empathetic, I feel very bad for them and I want to try to help.

You control how empathetic you are

The first thing I can do to help my less empathetic readers is to demonstrate to you that you are in control and can train your empathy to become more successful.

I believe we decide whether we want to act with empathy or not. Empathy is not in our DNA, it can be learned and improved. How do I know that? 

Let me tell you a story

A few years ago, driven by my burning curiosity, I had managed to get the hang on agile software development and I really thought I knew a lot about it.

Being an extrovert, I thrive when I am in the presence of big groups of people. At the same time, I am also an avid learner and I know that for me, sharing my thoughts in public, is the most effective way of learning something new.

One obvious  way of taking advantage of this two aspects of my character was to start participating actively to some Agile and Agile testing online groups with the honest intent to help people that needed help and learn in the process.

I tried. It was a train wreck.

My goal was learning by helping people resolve their problems, but the result was that I was pissing people off and pushing them further away from subjects that they found already enough challenging before they met me, the annoying Italian dickhead that thought he knew everything.

What was the cause of this disaster?

Was my knowledge on the subject not sufficient? Did I fail because of my incompetence?

No.

I knew enough to help the people starting with agile, I had the necessary knowledge and skills.

So what?

One day, I started following the answers of another person in the group let’s call him Mr. Joe. He was saying the same things I was saying, we agreed on everything, we even spoke a few times about how much we cared for the agile community and how much we wanted to help.

So, same skills, same motivation. Was he annoying people like me?

No. People loved him. They asked him direct questions and thanked him all the time.

I remember in one specific case, I got frustrated as I had spent quite a long time replying to a quite complex question with a good solution, then after I already did, Mr. Joe said the same things I said, in different terms.  and the person asking the question would thank him and ignore me.

Guess what? The person asking the question thanked Mr. Joe and completely blanked me.

Can you imagine? Somebody asks a question. I give him the right answer. Mr. Joe gives him the right answer after me. Mr. Somebody thanks Mr. Joe and blanks me.

I knew something was wrong and I started trying to find patterns, similarities and differences between me and Mr. Joe.

Then one day it hit me.

I was answering to “say the right thing”. Mr. Joe was answering because he cared that the person that asked the question would learn.

I felt stupid and ashamed of myself. I was really down. I realised how self-centered and selfish I had been while acting righteously as the “saviour of agile”.

Discovering bad things about ourselves is painful, but life has taught me that it is also the best thing that can happen to us because that’s the time we can make a decision to change and improve our lives.

I changed, bit by bit, slowly. Before answering any question on the forum, I started asking myself:

This person came to a public forum and asked for help on a subject he doesn’t know well, how might he feel?

How might this answer affect his feeling?

If I say this will he feel bad? How about I say it like this, same message but more positive, will he feel any better?

And it worked.

empathy

Week after week I started to get people contact me privately and thanking me for my time and help. They were telling me how my message had helped them resolve the problem.

I had been doing that exact same job for years and nobody ever did thank me. Then it became a stream of people thanking me for my help.

Be considerate, mindful, empathise with others. They will feel your empathy and compassion. They will want to work with you and their actions will also make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a win-win, we are both happy, why don’t you try?

The Agile Tester, a curious and empathetic animal

Agile testers at work
Agile testers at work

The agile tester (ˈadʒʌɪl/ ˈtɛstə/) is a mammal member of the family “Exploratoris”. He lives in the wild in small groups named cross-functional agile teams.

Skills

Besides communication and technical skills, his main traits are curiosity and empathy[1].

Curiosity helps the agile tester in finding opportunities to improve the product. The agile tester questions everything.

Empathy allows the agile tester to interact and collaborate with the other members of the agile team smoothly.

Mission

The agile tester has an overwhelming interest in delighting customers.

His customers are the product owner and the final users.

He strives in balancing his efforts between making his company successful and delighting the final users by delivering a continuous flow of value to both.

Life

The agile tester spends most of his time having numerous conversations with other members of the team [2].

He will often speak to and question the product owner and the final user in the quest of real value. The agile tester knows that if he doesn’t understand perfectly what the value to be delivered is, he won’t be able to do his job. He builds a strong understanding of the business context he lives in, to be able to help the product owner identify more valuable solutions. This aspect is extremely important to the agile tester, he strives to contribute to building a better product.

Often he will be found having a conversation with the product owner and a developer. This group of animals also known as “The 3 Amigos” [3] feed off each other’s knowledge, different perspective and passion for value to resolve all sort of problems and design lean solutions.

Other times he will be seen pair testing while coaching his partner developer or supporting a developer writing checks, or even writing some checks himself.

Some agile testers have been seen speaking to final users to better understand their experience with the application.

He is also sometimes found alone at his desk testing, softly talking to the application under test.

During the night the agile tester studies and researches his craft, sometimes he blogs and if you watch attentively you might spot a lone agile tester engaging in passionate testing conversations on twitter or in a bar in front of a beer.

Social life

The agile tester’s’ life would not be possible without the team. He works and lives with the team and for the team, the team is an organism that functions with the agile tester[4].

The agile tester is a pragmatic animal and doesn’t like the company of moaners that do nothing to improve their condition. The moaner is the nemesis of the agile tester [13]

The agile tester believes in sustainable development and will not work overtime except for very special circumstances. He will push for process changes to remove other overtime occurrences.

The agile tester and waste

In general the agile tester refuses the concept of waste.

He will not under any circumstance do something “because that’s  how we do things here” or “because the boss said so”. He will ask “why?”[5]. If he cannot get an answer that clearly explains what the value is, he won’t do it. He’d rather be fired than spend time doing things that don’t produce value.

On this subject he is known for using lean documentation, he generally enjoys documenting the application he is helping create through executable specifications[6].

He rejects the waste of bureaucracy and signoffs [7], in fact it is common seeing agile testers signing off by high five[8] in groups of Three Amigos rather than negotiate contracts.

The agile testers understands that producing, finding and fixing bugs is a wasteful activity and he will strive to help the agile team prevent them and do the thing right the first time as much as humanly possible[9]. The agile tester, not only understands this, but he coaches the developers members of the team on this concept and trains them in learning  techniques that help them prevent bugs.

The agile tester believes that his skills are wasted performing regression checks, in fact he employs tools for this menial task[10].

The agile tester prefers cards and conversations to large documents. He plans his activity just in time and helps build the next parts of the product using discovery.

Some agile testers believe predicting the future is a waste of time and prefer building predictable process rather than estimating, they have been known for insistently using the tag #NoEstimates

Some extremist agile testers even got to the point to say that bug management is waste and have removed bug management tools from their organizations with a positive impact[11].

Education

The agile tester is a continuous learner.

He believes in agile principles and he studies the impacts of agile software development on his industry trying to learn new approaches to improve his own company and the whole agile community.

He believes that continuous improvement (as in kaizen) means everybody in the agile team is empowered to drive it. He helps other team members bring out their solutions and support them in convincing the team to try and measure results.

He does not believe in best practices but in good practices that can be improved[12]

NEW! Continue reading with Agile Tester part 2, questions and answers !

References:

[1] Get In Shape to become a better Agile Tester

[2] [6] [9] When Something Works Share it 

[3] George Dinwiddie on the Three Amigos

[4] Cross-dysfunctional teams

[5] Be lean ask Why?

[7] The Cover your Ass manifesto

[8] Sign off by High Five

[10] Test Automation, Help or Hindrance?

[11] How I stopped logging bugs and started living happy

[12] 5 Reasons why best practices are bad for you

[13] Stop Moaning, be the change