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Team Building Or Putting the Fun Back in Dysfunctional (Rhythm of Testing)

On November 24, 2011, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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We’ve all seen these annoying “team building exercises” where someone dreams up something “fun” that will help everyone “learn to work together.” 

They can range from the “trust building” thing where one person, blind-folded, follows the directions of someone to get them to a goal.  Then there is the slightly more dangerous (hence fun to watch when things go pear-shaped… and they are almost certainly going to go pear-shaped) version where the blind-folded person crosses their arms and falls backward to be caught by another person. 

Now, upper body strength may play a role in the success of this version.  As does, well, paying attention and at least a rudimentary understanding of physics… and gravity.  Usually things combine into a series of “oh my” type moments.  Sometimes, well, they end with a little bump on the noggin.  (Once in a while its a big bump.)

Then there is the version of “ice-breaker/team-building” thing where two people sit on the ground, back to back with their arms linked.  Then, they work together to stand up.  The idea is they support each other while using their legs to stand up.  Things work just fine as long as both people apply equal pressure at the same rate.  If they don’t, well one stands up and the other gets dragged along for the ride.  Or there’s the fun alternative – where they mostly push against each other and end in a heap.

The thing is, most of these efforts strike me as artificial.  Translated, they may “work” in some form or other.  Most of the time, I see people l go through the motions because the boss told them to, or HR or, someone.  They don’t see the point.

Sometimes , when teams are “created” or “formed” or “built” or, whatever, you see the same kind of exercises.  In these cases, they are even more artificial.  People will go through the motions because if they don’t, they figure they’ll be fired.  Fear is a great motivator, at least on some level.

What I don’t understand is why so many people think it works. 

Its like, oh, I don’t know, boss-types throw people together and expect it to work by magic.  Well, maybe not magic.  I think maybe they expect it to work like a high school chemistry “experiment.”  You know the type – combine certain items in specific amounts in a specific sequence – POOF!  Stuff Happens!

Well – Humans don’t act that way.  But, when you consider people as “resources” it strikes me as, well, demeaning at best.  So, why, when we expect/need people to work together, do we act as if it will just “work.”

Most of us will try and work it out and do the “team” thing.  Its part of being a grown-up, mature, professional – right?  We kind of expect it – and they kind of expect us to do it.  So we do the whole storming-forming-norming thing and figure out what we need to do to do the job. 

Then, how many times have people seen this?

About the time we sort out how to tolerate each other and actually work and get stuff done – GOOD stuff, not just the bare minimum – someone waves a wand and reorganizes the company (or department or whatever) and expects things to work at the same peak performance as before the change.

Then there is the “optimizing resources” version of that.  Most of us have seen or heard of that version of the reorg game.

Someone looks at two departments or divisions or, for the “major league” players of that game, subsidiaries, and says “look at the cost savings we can get by combining X with Y!” 

There may be real savings, as in total net savings when the dust settles.  How long it takes the dust to settle is, in my mind, the question.  This is a variation on the “team building games” but instead of a handful of people, its a bunch of people who may very well know little or nothing about what the other people do. 

When this game gets played, I am afraid it is usually for a short-term gain – something to impact the financial statements this quarter or next quarter, with the promise of “real savings/benefits” five quarters in the future.

Then there is the really high-stakes version of the game: Borg, Inc assimilates Minuscule, Ltd.

Well, OK, that may be a slight overstatement.  And, to be fair, I’ve worked for companies playing both parts.  Still, for those in the company being acquired, the uncertainty of what is coming can be a bit unnerving.  When questions get asked up-stream in the new “organization” and there is no response, then a couple of messages are being sent:  1) We’re too busy to respond to your meaningless request for information; 2) Your future is your own (and it probably won’t be here). 

Now, those may not be what is intended to be sent, but usually that is what gets received by the “non-response.”

What I see happen in those situations is a large-scale version of those team building exercise-games I was on about.  I usually see a mix that has some posturing, some maneuvering, some “hoping for the best” and some resigned to fate.  In the end, there may likely be “staff realignment” actions – meaning some folks get assigned to new groups and others get assigned to “pursuing new interests”. 

And the game starts again.

So, the hard part is, how do you make that tolerable, if not palatable?  Can the people who are still there get by without gritting their teeth and going just a tad crazy?  Can the people making the decisions over what the teams, either reorganized or made from those who survived the staff reduction/realignment? 

Maybe, to both.

First, the players in the game – the rank and file folks like I have been for most of my working life – YOU are a crucial part of the mix.  YOU can directly impact how the game gets played.

Here are some thoughts around what I mean. 

People on other teams, groups, departments, whatever are probably not villains in their own mind.  They may well be trying their best in circumstances they find challenging, at the least.  They may very well see you as the villain.

How can you find out about that?  Can you see if they are really villains?  Can you see if they are as clueless as you have been told or come to believe? 

Maybe.  I can’t be certain if you ever will.  However, if they work in the same building or general location as you do, try this simple thing:  Walk up and introduce yourself.  :”Hi I’m Pete (well, only say that if your name is “Pete” – try putting your name in there instead) I work in department X.  Can I join you?”

Talk with them.  See what makes them tick.  It may take many conversations, but it is worth a start.  After all, you may also be able to dispel the myth that you have horns, a tail and cloven hooves for feet. 

If they have a similar job function that you do, try talking with them about the problems they run into and how they get over/around them.  Oh, and be willing to share what you are encountering as well.  Make it a mutual learning experience. 

Pretty simple, eh?  I found it works pretty well.  Not all the time and not 100% – but generally, it helps people see that other folks are, well, people too.  It may also give you some insights as to why Tezm Z can’t seem to turn out anything your team can work with.  And the folks on Team Z may find out that you don’t really mean to be a butt-head.

Things kind of work both ways like that. 

Managers, Leaders, Bosses – you can play a role in this, too.  Before “realigning” groups, have a thought to what the people in those groups are good at.  Find strengths that complement other people’s strengths.  Combine them when you can.

I know – most of you believe you are giving it your best effort.  A fair number of you do.

Others, admit it, if only to yourself, are looking to hit the target for head-count or “employee expense” (payroll) or “employee cost-reductions” (sacking high-paid folks) that you were told to hit.  Wel,, you, boss, or whoever set those targets, is a boss too.  Talk to them about this.  Try anyway.  Don’t whine,

I call that the “penny-wise/pound-foolish” managenment style. Sure Jane makes a pile more money than these three people – what skills does she have, what knowledge does she have – do the others have those skills or knowledge?  Do they together?  What is the impact to the product (hence customers, hence sales, hence bottom line) if we sack her and leave them?  What if we sack her and one of the other three?

Of course its not easy.  Back when I was in school, the argument was that managers, directors and bosses were paid a pile more money than other folks because they could and would make “hard decisions.”  HELLO!  That concept constitutes a “hard decision.”  Going with the simple “she makes more than the others, get rid of her” is not a “hard decision.”  If that is how you are operating, stop!  Really.

OK, now a scary point.  This is for line managers and staff – rank and file folks like me.

When you get “reorganized” you have an option.  Agree to the terms or pack it in and find another gig.  Simple.  “But the economy is bad!  Things are really tight!  I just did my nails!” 

It is your career and your life.  Manage it.  If you wait for other people to tell you what you can do, you may well be waiting a long time.  If you don’t like the terms or what you’ll be doing after the reorg, update the resume and get it on the street.  Sooner rather than later.  It weill be better for everyone.

Line managers and leads.  This is for you. 

Find out what your people like to do.  What makes them tick.  I know that you generally try.  The thing is, asking them flat out may be the least efficient way of finding out!  These are people who are testers, right? They analyze and think about things, right?  That means nothing is ever what it seems to them – RIGHT?  So don’t be surprised if the answer they give to the question about what they like doing or what they want to be doing in X years/months/whatever, is what they think YOU want to hear and not what they really would answer if talking about this over a beverage with teammates.

Work with your people to learn what they are like.  I know, it can be really hard when you work hundreds (or more) of miles away from people who are supposed to be “direct reports”.  Still, make the effort to learn them – not just about them, but learn what they are like, how they respond and how they handle different forms of pressure. 

I saw a really good example of this a couple of weeks ago.  Ironically enough it was at a “team building”exercise.  Some two dozen people were having an outing.  They all worked in the same office and “knew” each other enough to generally associate a face with the corresponding name – at least first name.  After lunch they had some games.

They were divided into two teams, very diplomatically.  They reached into a bag and pulled out a necklace of plastic beads.  Whatever color beads they pulled out, that was what team they were on.

The games they were to play were essentially children’s games – some skill, some memory, some, a little of both.  OK, there were some basic rules – some games took 2 people from each team, some took 1.  No single person could play more than 2 games.  Everyone had to play at least 1 game.  After the teams were identified, they had 15 minutes to sort out who would do what games.

One team got together and debated on a name – what are they going to call themselves.  That took several minutes.  Then one person said “I’m really good at X and Y, but not so good at Z. So, I’ll do X, I’ll be the “partner” for Y, but (pointing at someone else) you do Z.”  He then assigned other people to other games.  People just kind of blinked and did not really argue.

The other team took a different approach.  The first question was “Who is good at what games?”  Several people were good at multiple games, some were not sure, some said “Its been so long since I’ve done any of these, I just don’t know.”  So, they tried the games.  Yeah, they looked to see who was really the best players for each of the challenges. 

After finding people for the hardest “skill” games, they were sorting out who would do the memory games and who would be the second players on the mutliple player games.  The interesting thing was, those who had a game selected/assigned stayed by that game to make it easier for everyone else to see what games still needed people assigned to them. 

About this time, the FIRST team realized what they were doing and declated it “cheating”.  Alas, it was time for the first challenge.  Team 1 had a hard time remembering who was to do that game/challenge.  They took a few minutes to get that sorted.  Then they decided that writing down who would do what was a good idea. so, they began writing things down.

After being trounced in the first game/challenge, Team 1 had, concerns over who was to do the second challenge.  It seems they had people assigned to three challenges and some people were not assigned to any.  One brave soul stepped up for the second challenge (a 1 player game) and was likewise trounced by the Team 2 player. 

This pattern continued.  In one memory game, Team 1 took advantage of a mistake by the Team 2 player and won that game.  In Jenga, Team 1 got very lucky when the Team 2 player bumped the table slightly when moving a pieve, sending the tower of blocks down.  These were the only 2 “wins:” Team 1 had. 

The other games all went to Team 2 – convincingly. 

How does this apply to real work?  I see an awful lot of knee-jerk reactions to situations – kind of like the Team 1 approach in general.  Don’t do that if at all possible,  Really.

Find out what your people are good at, and find out what they like doing.  If at all possible, accomodate those skills and preferences.  If there are people who are willing to learn new skills, encourage them – let them practice the “game” the have an interest in.  Encourage others to practice “games” as well.  If there are skills that people don’t have, and are needed to do what your group is assigned – ask the people who would be willing to learn the new skill – the new “game”.  Give them the option first.

Encourage your people and encourage them to help and support each other,

The next time the “sides” get chosen for the next game, they may not end up in the same Team 1 or Team 2 that they were on this time.  Give them skills to move forward and make their new team better. 

Put the fun back in what we do.

 

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