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Simple trick to improve team productivity

The modern notion of software development requires to work in team. We work as individual contributors, but it’s the team that delivers the final outcome. From development through production, it is a team effort that enables quality at speed.

I look around and most teams are not as productive as they might have been. To individuals that I talk always tell that they are putting their best, but somehow the net result is not what they want. Those who have such feelings include Project Mangers, Scrum Masters, Development Managers, Testing Managers, Developers, Testers and the list goes on.

I think I have a fix to suggest. In fact, a very simple one and that is “Show Respect”.

You might be thinking, oh now we’ll get some sermons on the old philosophies of respecting people and we are in 21st century. But humans are humans, they only work at their best when they are respected.

Google did a famous study just couple of years ago which was summarized in this beautiful (though lengthy) article in New York Times. It suggests:

In the best teams, members listen to each other and show sensitivity to feelings and needs

More details of the study are here where “Psychological Safety” is defined.

Now you might think or claim that you already do that as a leader or team member. Your organization may have “Respect at the workplace” as one of business values. But how do you know if you are practicing what you preach? I’m suggesting following 3 tests for you to get answers to questions like these: “Am I respectful to my team members?”, “Is my manager respectful to all?”, “Who is not showing respect in the team?”

Respect the presence

I learned this from my grandfather when I was about 8 or 10 years old that whenever anyone in the family visited him, he greeted them by standing from his seat. He was in his eighties at that time but he’d stand up for his 2 year grandson or grand-daughter.

So here is the test: when someone approaches you at work, how do you respect them? Do you stand up to greet them? Do you offer that person the time one is looking for? Do you respond as if you want them to go away from you?

(the picture is taken from: https://www.practicaletiquette.com/how-to-show-respect.html )

Respect the opinion

In the 7 Habits training that I went through couple of months ago, had an interesting quote from Dr. Stephen R. Covey, though internet suggest it has many roots:

When two people have the same opinion, one of them is redundant

So here is the test: when someone offers you opinion at work, how do you respect them? Do you always want people to offer opinions which fit fine in your frame of things? Do you listen to any opinion coming from any member of the team? Do you follow the advice given in the opinion?

Respect the feelings

Respecting someone’s presence of opinion gets you at a position where you start respecting people’s feelings. Just like we have different skin tones, our reactions to same incident can be very different. Respect that difference and try to understand that not everyone thinks the same way about any thing in this world.

So here is the test: when someone feels differently than your thinking, how do you respect them? Do you empathize with them to understand more? Do you give space to be able to share their feelings? (what we call Psychological Safety in Google study above)

Before I go, let me tell you that I’ve personally seen this respect trick to be working. In teams where everyone was respectful, team members were more influential and they cooperated with their best efforts to do wonders.

How has been your experience? Do you also believe that Respect is the root of team productivity? You can have a different opinion and I respect that.

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Ghalib on Communication

Chacha Ghalib continues to inspire many souls in this land but I’m sure that he has said things that use the ordinary language of a “love affair” but actually depict deeper thoughts about life. Earlier I covered his thoughts on Quality and today I thought to share my understanding of some of his thoughts on Communication.

Aagahee

Aagahee Daam e shuneedan jis qadar chaahay bichhayay

Mudaa anqa hay apnay aalam e taqreer ka

The very first entry in short selection of Ghalib’s Ghazals talks about how communication is interpreted and Ghalib says: “It is up to you how you want to extend the original words that you have listened because who and how it was said is not there”. So many times, the message gets lost in the layers of management and the vision set by a CEO is just thought as totally irrelevant thing by the actual employee who is supposed to strive for achieving that vision. So it is very important that the message is sent again and again and preferably by your own presence. No one else can explain what you want to say. Agile manifesto is another example of how it is adapted by different teams in different ways. It is okay to have variations but if it is against the spirit of what was said then it really hurts.

Taqreer Lazzat

Daikhna Taqreer ke lazzat kay jo uss nay kaha

Main nay yeh jaana kay goya yeh bhe meray dil main hay

Ghalib knew that art of communication is not to impress upon the rational minds but it is more about the feelings that are associated with hearts. He says “See how delicious are his words such that whatever he said, I felt all of this is already there in my heart”. So many researches are now there to knowing your audience and say things that connect with them. If the listeners don’t feel what you are saying, then you’ll not be able to move them and follow your message.

Aankh Tasveer

Aankh kee tasveer sarnaamay pay kheenchy hay kay taa

Tujh pay khul jaaway kay iss ko hasrat e Deedar hay

This is one of the beauties and what might have appeared then as a bizarre concept, it is now widely accepted that “A picture is worth thousand words”. Ghalib says “I have drawn the picture of eye on the envelope of my letter, so that you can know that writer has a deep desire to meet you”. Drawing an eye to say “Hey, I wanna meet you” is a brilliant idea and facebook also realized lately that they need more emoticons for expressing feelings. The lesson is clear that since our mind is trained towards seeing the world first and then reading words, a picture says much more than words. That is why I mostly have some descriptive picture on each of my blog post.

PaighamZubaani

Day kay khat munh daikhtay hay Naama bar

Kuch to paighaam zubaani aur hay

Ghalib knows that verbal communication surpasses over written communication and says “The one who brought me your letter is looking at me after handing over the letter. There must be a verbal message that is not in the writing”. If you work in any environment where emails are primary way of communication, you should know that emails bring no emotion and are so confusing. I have seen teams sitting in same hall or same location and exchanges dozens of emails in a day. It would have been much better if you stand up from your desk and just walk to the person and talk at length. The verbal communications are two way and reveal how other person is feeling. Ah those feelings, understanding them and responding them accordingly is what good communication is all about.

Nafas e Bay Asar

Bhalaa ussay na sahee kuch mujhee ko raham aata

Asar meray nafas e bay asar main khaak naheen

“If he didn’t care, at least I should have shown some mercy. Because whatever I was saying was having no impact on him”. I think Ghalib wants to say that if you are boring, then at least you should be short. So many times you sit in presentations that kill you of lengthy boredom and so many times you start a blog post and leave midway as it is too long and not being interesting. I usually use a yardstick to have a blog post of about 500-800 words because I know that I can be boring at times. Another rule suggested by some experts is to limit emails to a screen length so that they become easy on the readers.

With that in mind, I had listed down many other verses but I cut short here.

Have poetry impressed you to improve upon your communication? If so, let us know please.

Feedback: Giving, Receiving and Seeking

This is a guest post by Ruma Dak *

Be it personal or professional life, we receive and give feedback more often than we realise! Like lot of other things, feedback can be very relative and it’s impact and effect depends a lot on perception. It wouldn’t be wrong if I say that most of the times, we do not know how to receive feedback in a positive manner and give feedback in a harmless way.

Let’s talk about giving feedback first. Focussing more on the professional side of things, feedback is an important tool/medium to let people know about their performance. The way feedback is given influences the benefit it can provide, if any. When you are a giver of feedback, the most important thing to remember is that feedback is about peoples’ action or work and not about their personal selves.

It can be very constructive if it is specific and delivered in a clear, concise and respectful manner. A feedback should be complete so it can deliver the intended message . BIPO model can be used to deliver a feedback, where BIPO stands for :

Behaviour: Explaining the behaviour for which the feedback is given for.

Impact: Impact that the above behaviour created.

Preferred Behaviour: What was the expected behaviour, this would generally differ from Behaviour in some way or other.

Outcome: What is expected after feedback is accepted and acted upon.

When giving a feedback, it is very important to provide an alternate to highlight the scope and benefit of improvement. Make sure your feedback motivates the receiver and not demoralise or insult him/her.

Feedback

(the original photo is here: http://blog.aasaanjobs.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/feedback.jpg )

Receiving feedback is something not everyone is good at. It’ very easy to feel offended by a ‘not-so-positive’ feedback and take it very personally. When on the receiving end, one should be open, sincerely interested and accepting of the feedback. Listen to the feedback carefully and spend time analysing it if required. Feel free to ask questions, have a healthy discussion and take it as an opportunity to identify the ‘unknown’ about you and try to make the feedback work in your favour.

If the feedback is positive, try to set it as a standard for yourself and take negative feedback as constructive criticism. Be thankful to the person giving you the feedback always.

Seeking feedback: People often don’t realise that feedback can be explicitly asked for or they shy away from doing so! Seeking feedback fosters communication and makes people feel valued. It’s a good way of making people say things which they would not willingly do. When you try something new at work, ask people about how it was? Generally, in such cases, you will receive the response to be something like ‘Oh! you were great’ or ‘Yeah, pretty good’ . Ask people to point out at least two things which you can improve on or do slightly better. I have tried this myself so many times and its always helped me get some great ideas. Free-of-Cost! And when you seek a feedback, you are indirectly giving an implicit feedback that the person’s opinion is valued! How cool is that!!

Apart from the above, there will be times when you will receive unsolicited feedback out of the blues. Welcome it as well with open mind and try to make the most out of it!

So, whether you are giving, receiving or seeking feedback, be thoughtful, respectful and thankful. Lastly and very importantly, always prefer face-to-face communication while doing so.

Finishing off with a quote from Ann Marie Houghtailing:

Feedback is a free education to excellence. Seek it with sincerity and receive it with grace.

* Ruma is a tester-blogger friend based in Australia and blogs at http://rumadak.wordpress.com .  She is an expert Tester, a bookworm, a traveler and also talks about life philosophy on her blog. Read more about her interests on her blog’s about page.

The Power of 1-1 meetings

If as a People Manager, I have to give you one tip that would be to hold regular One-on-One meetings with your direct reports.

Usually the talk of holding these 1-1 meetings revolves around the modalities of scheduling like should we do it on weekly basis or once in a month. Or revolves around the modalities of how much you should talk vs. how much your direct report should talk. All of that is irrelevant. What is important is that the purpose of holding such meetings is to understand each other better.

It is not the team that consists of super stars that succeeds, but it is the team that knows each other well.

One on One meeting

(the original photo is here: http://icirr.org/content/importance-one-ones )

Here are some other benefits of holding such meetings from my experience on top of this understanding:

Feelings are conveyed

In a typical workday, conversations revolve around getting things done. Technical discussion spring from task updates and project planning meeting consumes the day. You talk to your direct report many times but the focus is on the “Work” or “Task”. As you move into a specially scheduled 1-1 meeting with your team member, the focus immediately shifts to “Humans” and “Feelings”.

So I typically ask questions like these in such meetings:

“How do you feel about your current assignment?” or “Are you excited enough with the challenges we are offering?” or “Do you feel happy if we ask to work with team X?”

When your direct report answers such questions, you get a lot more understanding of the “human” on the other side and how that person “feels” or “operates”.

People feel special

Regardless of where you are in the hierarchy of your organization, your team knows that you are the busiest (and perhaps most costly) person in the team. So when you set everything aside and allocate time for your team members, they feel special and they feel acknowledged. Motivation then just becomes a side effect of such conversations.

That is why it is important to hold these meetings at some conference room rather than on your work desk to avoid any distractions. And that is why cancelling a scheduled 1-1 meeting sends a very wrong and opposite message of being special.

You share your feelings

Though it is value in having different personalities and having people of different capabilities in your team, it is always good to have them behave in the way you envision your team.

One of the quotes that I like from “The Casino” movie in which Robert Di Nero tells his direct report:

“There are three ways to do work. The wrong way, the right way and … my way”

As your team members express their feelings and talk about their emotions, it is always good to express your feelings. Acknowledge the things you like and mention the things that you don’t like in a way that they don’t feel badly but feel positively to change them.

Are you practicing 1-1 meeting in your team? What lessons you’d like to share?

The real success story of Panama Canal

It was 1881 when the French undertook the project of Panama canal with the ambition to join the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The idea was there ever since this part of land was discovered by Vasco Núñez de Balboa (against whom name is the Panamian currency called Balboas) and even in 16th century, the Spanish wanted to construct a canal but they did not have the technical expertise needed for this at that time. To take part of this strategic path, a rail track was constructed by the Chinese in 1860s where ships were off loaded on one part of ~70KM land and ported through rail to the other side where another ship would take the load and keep moving.

The French seemed well prepared. Ferdinand de Lesseps who was the chief engineer of the famous Suez canal along with his team brought the most experienced workforce in this domain. The plan was prepared with all the geographic considerations and work started at a real good pace. But in 9 years of construction, the project was still any thing but on target with about 20,000 workers losing their lives. No not in the blasting or other construction related injuries or the venomous snakes hidden in the rainforest, but due to the yellow fever and malaria. Given the loss of workers, the morale of the rest of the workforce was really down. There were other factors also and the project was abandoned and it appeared that such a canal is not possible.

Panama Canal Extension 3

(Photo by me. Panama Canal expansion project. New set of locks on the Atlantic side)

Then the Americans took over this project in 1903 and used some part of the work done by the French earlier. They knew that the project didn’t complete due to the loss of workers rather than any technical grounds, so they first thought to solve that problem. There was a sanitation office setup with this special mission to eradicate yellow fever, malaria and similar diseases in this region. There was investment in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. This did not completely eliminate the malaria like diseases but helped a lot in controlling it which resulted in the canal completed almost on scheduled and starting operating in 1914. It is now 101 years that canal is still operating and now an expansion of canal is underway that will double the passage of ships in a day which is estimated to open in 2016.

The above is a summary of the story of Panama Canal that I heard during my recent visit there. We enjoyed the beautiful beaches and diverse wildlife in the rainforest but the most talking goes around the Panama Canal (including the famous Palindrome “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama”). And using the ‘over-simplification logic’, I concluded that success of building the canal was not coming with a beautifully engineered design or well orchestrated work. Rather it was about supporting and protecting the workforce from diseases like Malaria so that they can focus on the work.

And then I looked around the modern day workplaces and the diseases that make them toxic. There are Malaria like attacks from distrust, dishonesty, lack of communication and not appreciating the lives of talented workers.

The workplaces that work on removing such diseases first rather than solving the technical problems, produces wonders like Panama Canal. Are you willing to do that?

Communicating as Leaders

The modern definition of leadership is that if you can think of an idea or vision, and then can work with your team to deliver that, you are a leader. In some years you’ll see that the search on Google for ‘great leaders’ will not just show the political and military personalities, but will also show people from all disciplines including software quality.

Though it takes a lot of skills to be a leader of the level mentioned above but one of the key skills is ‘Communication’. As a leader, if you are able to invoke the right feelings in the hearts of the people who work around you through your day to day communication, you are able to build teams that are more engaged, more motivated, more productive and more innovative.

I was myself exposed to this idea last year during a personal Executive Coaching experience that taught me a lot including some topics in the field of psychology. I got to know the exceptional work of Daniel Kahneman and his mind changing book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Kahneman talks about how two systems in us where one is fast and other is slow work in the process of decision making. My coach pointed out that we can make use of Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Cognitive Ease’ model below to aid in our communications.

cognitive ease

The model says that if you are feeling true, feeling good, feeling familiar and feeling effortless that indicates a good mood and you will be in a state of flow where you’ll enjoy your most productive way at high rates. So here is the idea that we as leaders, communicate with our teams in a way that our talks give birth to these feelings in the hearts of our team members. It takes some practice but then it becomes natural.

For example if you are introducing a change in the Release Readiness Review process of your software, and a young member in the team starts arguing that it won’t work. It is easy to say things like: “you are new in the field, so shut up please” or “time will tell that I was right”. But think before you speak as how the person will feel? If you want that person to feel good and feel true at the situation, you can say: “your insight into the matter inspires me. How about we two work together to put this in a pilot program and see how this change works?” or “you have raised a very good point. Can you detail so as how it will fail and what ways you suggest to have even better process?”

Give this a try and you and your team will love it. I presented this subject at an Engineers convention over the weekend (yes, I still go to those places 🙂 ), it seemed everyone needs this advice.

What advice you have for these modern leaders?

How to motivate testers?

This is one of the common questions I receive too many times. One reason I am asked this is that I am always very motivated to present myself as a Software Testing and Quality guy. In fact that’s what I use as my introduction. The other reason for this question is that I have been managing big teams of testers and one of my main job is to keep them motivated as testers. So what is the magic behind?

The rule zero is that you should take pride in whatever work you do. Testing is a great job and it is in no way inferior to other roles in software development process. One of my mentors mentioned to me once that at heart of every great business, there is some mean work that goes in. All that McDonalds do is make burgers and all that Starbucks do is make coffee. Making burger or making coffee can bring you a lot of pride if you do it in great ways like McDonalds or Starbucks do.

motivatedteam

(the original photo is here: http://johnnyd44.hubpages.com/hub/Motivating-Employees-101 )

Then the first thing is that Testers or Programmers or Engineers are all human beings. Seriously I mean that 🙂 So any rule that applies on motivating people apply and specially the rules that are related to people involved in Knowledge work apply. So whatever Peter Drucker talked about is relevant and whatever Dan Pink is preaching matters.

Second rule is that Testers need to be treated as Executives and this rule I got from one of my favorite books “Lessons Learned in Software Testing by Kaner, Bach and Pettichord”. To quote the book:

“Lesson 211: Treat your staff as Executives

Different executives have different strengths and interests. Give two executives identical jobs (not tasks, but ongoing jobs), and they’ll give very different performance.

Most testers are executives within Druker’s meaning. Manage them on that basis. Don’t supervise them as though they were factory workers, and don’t spend your time trying to redesign their jobs into the equivalent of factory work. Instead, accept and manage around the fact that they have different strengths and interests.”

Once you know that you are managing Executives, you know your job is not to watch over them or keep looking from their shoulders so as where their time is going and what activities they perform on daily basis. Executives are told what needs to be achieved and then should be left alone to achieve it. The only role that remains is kind of what Board of Directors do: “set directions or vision, provide resources when needed. That’s it.”

Third and last rule which essentially comes from a personal experience is that you should believe that people you are managing are better than you. You need to have an utter belief in their strengths and capabilities that they can do wonders that you can only imagine. This lesson I learned from one of my bad bosses earlier in my career and yes, you learn from each boss whether good or bad. The scenario was that I was constantly reminded that my boss was more knowledgeable than me and the stuff I produce is not quality one and needs lot of reviews. Guess what happened, I lost interest in producing quality stuff and waited for my boss to find lots of issues in my work. It kept my boss happy and kept me demotivated. In later years, when I gained some authorities, I reversed this rule and I celebrated the great work that my team produced. A rule that I got from one of my good bosses says it all as he mentioned it to me once: “you know Majd, at times I am just a cheer leader for my team”.

Do you know more factors that help in motivating testers?