Ship wreck

Working with a team once, I  inadvertently become in a state of confrontation with them. It bothered me.  How did this happen ?

Earlier in my Scrum Master career it wasn’t uncommon to find myself head to head about some trivial thing like how to use story points, who moves the cards on the board – the kind of day to day  beginner level errors of judgement about what matters, that I’d see as a point to be won – probably to prove myself.

But that was a long time ago.

I’d approached this assignment as a coach.  With a deliberate coaching stance and toolset.   I was named and introduced as an Agile Coach by the people who hired me.

My first statement to the team was about how I’d like to be thought of as a partner, how I was going to listen to their concerns and help them achieve their goals, and very specifically – not to judge or say they were doing things wrong.

I know for sure I said that,  because at the time of writing this I could see the slide I used whilst I introduced myself.      I thought it was a reasonable way to open the working relationship, but the team were mute.   Maybe they were waiting to see what happened next.    Maybe it was so good it looked sinister.


Without going into detail, things had not been going well, and I’d been hired to help.   Working with the Scrum Master we proposed a kind of re-set sprint.  Re-baseline who did what, how a sprint would work, what the PO would / would not do etc.

It had the support of everyone, despite the concession that delivery would slow down and the impatient external client would have to be calmed, the consensus was that it was necessary;  that you’ve got to stop the car to change the flat tyre.

I ran some agile refresher sessions, and kept them as brief and as interactive as I could.  Team members had had a variety of experiences with agile, so I wanted to re-calibrate everyone’s understanding and smoke out any strong beliefs one way or the other, to see what might have been getting in the way.

There was some take-up in these sessions, but also a lot of silence.  When people did speak up, it tended to be defensive or even angry  “yeah but this always happens and we have to do…”  kind of thing.

I acknowledged these views,  didn’t counter them, but tried to offer safety by giving them offers of support, saying how we could look closely at the next time it occurs and get to the root cause.

I didn’t see the positivity bite yet, but kept going.

I moved onto work a bit with the QA’s as a small group.

(I know the ‘assurance of quality’ is a team activity not a role – but here, like lots of places , it was a named role, people had been hired as QA or Testers and I wasn’t going to start messing with that at this early stage).

I thought if I can get some insights going with the QAs and they can influence their developer colleagues, then that would be worth more than if I did it.   Find one or two who might be near a tipping point and empower them.

Now I approached the QA’s because they were particularly vociferous about needing total clarity of all requirements up front.  They believed this, even though it wasn’t working; their own examples of having ‘total clarity’ were still resulting in big oversights; such as finding out in late stage testing that nobody had thought what the ‘Cancel’ button was supposed to do on a transaction.   There were other similar examples.

But still the insistence was:  if only everything was clear up front, it’ll be alright.  The estimates will be right and we can deliver  exactly as we plan to.  In the future there will be no bugs…

I didn’t think trying to lecture or train people out of this mindset was going to work.  They’d have to experience a different way, first hand.    I wanted to explore this with the QA’s  and see what they’d be prepared to let go of.

Could they lose some of that dissatisfaction of these late issues by getting stuck into testing activities earlier ?

Would conversations with developers about what was going to be tested before being handed something that was supposedly “done but just needs testing”, be of interest to them ?

I invited them to do a quick exercise to look at which decisions about a feature could be deferred into the sprint rather than having to be made up front.   Straight from Mike Cohn’s toolbox that – I thought it would be a good one.

No interest.  Not even a reply.

Nevertheless, they all turned up to the session I invited them to, to explore agile testing.  I’d brushed up on the subject and prepared a few slides with examples to get a discussion going.

But whilst preparing it, I couldn’t get into the groove.  My own material looked clunky to me.   The day came and I still  wasn’t quite ready – so I admitted this as we began.

I said outright that I would have preferred to work on the the material a bit more, but that I was ready enough to give them a decent session today, and that I felt comfortable enough in their company that they’d accept that.   I said I believed we could work together to get something of value from this couple of hours.

Looking back that was quite an overt display of vulnerability.   It was genuine, but also deliberate.  I wanted to show I was on their level, unarmed, without rank, without all the smart answers ready.

I got mullered pretty much from the start.

The first exercise didn’t get a look in.  It was a straight challenge (and not in a positive way, but more like a pre-emptive strike) from the senior QA

” you want us to do this without requirements and just make it up as we go ..?   (and then some)”

No.  The agenda was still there on the screen. It didn’t say anything like that, and neither had I.

It said that we’ll cover:

  • what are your problems and pain points
  • what’s the belief about agile testing
  • any ideas you have about improving
  • what would you be prepared to try

It was all as inclusive and as non-confrontational as I could muster.

My memory tells me I’m probably feeling indignant at this point.    I’m getting battered here.   Forget the learning, just survive this session with some dignity and without swearing back at them.      I was reminded I’d only been with them 4 weeks and actually there was no trust yet.   Feeling really on the back foot, the vibe I hoped to create had never even begun.    Still, I had the detachment to step back and I said something like

” OK,  it’s not gone as I thought, this.  You can see what I planned to cover and you can see what’s happened in the first 20 minutes.   Do you want to continue with this ?   It’s up to you”

They said yes.

I can’t recall the rest.  The session struggled on and then actually over-ran, so there was engagement in some form to the end.

But how did I miss that opportunity to avoid resistance from the start ?

I tried the disarming, open approach, but still – the fight arrived in my lap, like one of those old western movie bar room brawls.

Was even the mere idea of exploring agile testing seen as provocative ?

Was it stranger fear ?

Was the need for them to be able to fix their thing so strong and irascible that it trampled on the helping hand ?

I’m was left wondering about this.

Maybe it was just my existence, as in my role.

Maybe it was a ‘hidden role’ they felt touching their shoulder with its cold ghostly hand; a flashback to something before.  The role of a previous manager or newcomer who had created this reaction and polluted my path ahead of time.

I don’t know.

For different reasons, we never did another session and that assignment’s now in my history pile.

But for sure, it was some kind of learning .

Really take some time to smell the air and check for that hidden role, that default defensiveness and if I can pick up on what the fear is, acknowledge it.

Even if that session had been a collective helpless breakdown rather than a pre-emptive resistance to change, I feel it would have been easier.   If we’d all have been together scratching our heads to find a solution, there would have been some positivity in there to grab hold of.

On this day, I couldn’t see any.

Maybe another coach could.

Or when the dog’s snarling as you walk past its house, maybe best to walk briskly on.