What would a Leader do?

Just over 2 years ago I wrote my most viewed blog post to date: The Tester’s Job. As 2013 comes to a close, there is much hullaballoo happening in the Microsoft Test community. After a series of non-trivial reorgs, it is clear Microsoft is making a huge step away from the traditional role for Testers and even the word Test is being stricken from the vernacular with our fearless leaders’ titles being replaced with a new one Director of Quality. Followers of this blog know this is change I felt was coming for a while now as well as aggressively supported.

Last May, my own team underwent this change with some great successes and some even greater learnings which I presented recently to a set of Test leaders. This presentation has become the closest thing to viral that I’ve ever experienced. Mostly, I believe, because folks are anxious about the change and are eager to use whatever data they can find to help predict their own future. The deck mentions some pretty significant changes needed to make the paradigm shift happen. The most controversial being a very large change in the Dev to Test ratio (a number that was historically used to determine the “right size” of test teams during reorgs). In my experience, some folks are more comfortable with innovating and being a starter. Whereas, other folks are superb at executing and getting work closed. Between the two, I have always been much more interested in being on the frontlines of change. Accordingly, I’ve never much been afraid of change, and view it as an opportunity to explore something new. I thoroughly enjoy seeing how these new learnings can be used to grow myself, my team, and whatever product I happen to be working on. And as a result, my love of the New and of Learning has helped to make me quite adaptable over the years. However, I understand that not everyone’s built this way and even those who are, the changes coming might be more than they can tolerate.

One colleague sent me the following in email after seeing my presentation:

Sobering. This is a lot of where we are headed in [my group], but without (so far) shifting any resources.  This may be really hard on test from the sounds of it.  Are there any suggestions on how to lessen the pain? Do we just rip the band aid and give people retraining?”

Since this is something that I am getting a lot of questions about lately, I felt it would be a good topic for a post. As I mentioned last time, Spider organizations don’t scale to the degree we will need them, so we need to build up Starfish muscle. While this does mean a move towards Headless organizations, it by no means describes one that is leaderless. In fact, leaders become critical. One of the challenges with this shift is that people are so accustomed to living in Spider organizations that they forget, nay, afraid to lead. This is the first change I think people need to do.

Here’s a very simple strategy I have found that helps me when times are troubling:

  • Ask and answer: What would a Leader do? – If there were an actual leader right here and now, what would they be doing? Why? What goal would they be trying to achieve? How would they go about it?
  • Be that leader – Why not you? Everyone has the ability to lead. It’s just easier not to. Choose to lead. Bravery is doing the right thing even though you are afraid.

So what would a leader do in these times? Here’s what I think:

  1. Keep their head on straight. There are 4 key things people need from their leaders. Trust, Hope, Compassion, and Stability. You cannot provide *any* of these if you join the panic. Imagine the state of the fireman who is going UP the stairs of a burning building.
  2. Manage the Change
    1. Explain what, why, and how the change is occurring. All three! Many times I see leaders leave one of them out. Folks need all three in order to triangulate on the correct direction.
    2. Explain the goal and new direction. Telling folks where to head is easier and more beneficial than telling them what to avoid. “We need to ship weekly” is better than “We need to stop shipping every 3 years” as examples.
    3. Enlist others in making the change happen. People are more likely to follow something that they contributed to creating. I’ve always been a fan of enlisting the team to come up with the logistics and dates and to place themselves into the positions that they are the most passionate about.
    4. Pull the trigger. Be the tipping point to get the momentum going.
  3. Train ThemselvesThis is probably the single most important item. You cannot help others if you have not helped yourself. You need to learn more about the new world you are heading towards. Dive in. Then and only then will you be in a position to guide others. Seek out internal experts. Change jobs. Go back to school. Head to conferences. I read recently that if you just read 1 hour a day in the field of your choosing, you would be an international expert on that topic in just 7 years. Those investments add up very quickly. Do not underestimate it. (I, myself, will be starting my Masters in Analytics on January 6th! (very excited about it))
  4. Train Others – You need to distribute what you have learned. A couple of things I have been doing lately:
    1. When someone asks me to talk to them on a topic, I assume they will not be the last. So organize it as a presentation.
    2. Record it, so it can be shared.
    3. Create a local community and ask each interested person if they’d like to join it. I can no longer find the reference, but something like 80% people will join if they are just asked. Try to drive participation on the community to make it self-sustaining.
  5. Get out of the way – Remain as the bottleneck to the change for as little time as possible. Someone may need to stay at the helm in order to make sure the momentum continues in the right direction, but once it is clear that it has, get out of the decision making process and let the team be empowered.

Rip the Band-Aid?

    To be honest, I am a proponent of Band-Aid ripping in these situations. People are afraid to make changes due to the unknown consequences. As Brad Pitt’s character asked in MoneyBall, “Which would you prefer, a clean shot in the head or 5 shots to the body and bleed to death?” The longer you wait, the harder the pain will be for those involved. But DO NOT rip the Band-Aid without a plan.

One last note: One very popular question people have been asking me lately is do I think that Test is dying? I believe Test (as we know it) is like a chicken with its head cut off. It’s dead, but the rest of the body is still flapping about and doesn’t quite know it yet. I have now been at the company for 20 years and, in that time, have seen a number of these big transitions occur in the Test discipline. I find it wise to remember: Each time these transitions occurred, a fairly large number of people were affected, but as a whole, we improved and became more valuable to the company. I think this time around will be no different. My view is that, given our innate ability to code and test coupled with our passionate pursuit of quality, our staff is well suited for being the engineers of the future and perhaps better than any of the other disciplines. However, whichever way the wind blows, it’s clear we will need to change. My New Year’s Resolution is to help anyone and everyone I can to help make this migration. After all, it’s what a leader would do.