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Fear, A Major Speed Bump on the Road to Quality

by Angela 3. February 2017 22:26

I warned you that I’d be blogging about the “messiness” of ALM and DevOps consulting. And this is a long one so grab a cup of coffee, tea, or cocktail of your choice (whatever I won’t judge). It’s actually based on something I wrote for the QAI Quest Magazine. If you haven’t checked out the CQAA (Chicago Quality Assurance Association) community or their upcoming QUEST conference in Chicago this April, I highly recommend it!

Anyway, here is the article:

A large part of my job as a scrum master and agile coach is focusing on quality. Quality of process, quality of teams, and quality of software. While all of these can be challenging to improve, one of the hardest to tackle is quality of the team. I’m not talking about individual’s skillsets, although that is important. I’m talking about the ability of the team to work together as a WHOLE. In my experience, teams that cannot accomplish this cannot produce a quality product. Missed requirements, sloppy handoffs, miscommunication of what is “done”, and a host of other issues arise when the team just can’t seem to come together in a truly open and collaborative environment. Causes for this failure are complex and will vary from team to team. But one that I run into time and time again is fear. Yes, fear!

I’m not a psychologist and I don’t purport to know all the answers, but I can speak from experience - both in terms of myself and what I see in others. I have seen fear manifest itself in the following situations:

· Underestimating feature delivery times to hide a lack of confidence, often leading to painful sprint reviews when committed features aren’t delivered on time, or not at all.

· Code being integrated too soon to avoid being late, resulting in bugs “leaking” into production.

· Misunderstood requirements being implemented without question, and promptly being rejected by QA or a frustrated product owner.

· Resentment when team members feel someone is not pulling their weight, when in reality that person is silently struggling.

· Failure by team members to ask for clarification because everyone else surely must “get it”.

The fear of being seen as not good enough or smart enough by our peers is real and pervasive in IT. Ironically, the end result of hiding our struggles is often working extra hours and even cutting corners to make the unrealistic deadlines that we set for ourselves. This inevitably leads to doing the very thing we are fearful of … letting people down.

Tying this back to quality:

· Imagine if the team was afraid to admit that a requirement was vague, that it would be extremely complex to develop, or almost impossible to adequately test.

· Imagine if they assumed they’d figure it out as they go and plowed ahead.

· Imagine if someone on the team rushed to complete a feature and skimped on testing to prevent blowing their estimates because of fear of retribution for being wrong.

You probably don’t have to imagine it. It’s likely happening on your team right now but no one is talking about it! So, what can you do once you’ve realized that fear is holding you or your team back? What I have learned on my own journey is that it’s not enough to recognize when I am acting from a place of fear; I also have to recognize it in others. And much like quality, it is EVERYONE’S responsibility to create a collaborative and supportive environment.

As a Scrum Master, here are some of the things that I ask myself in order to help address fear on my teams.

· Is someone new to the team, or to their role, and clearly feeling overwhelmed or struggling to fit in?

· Is someone is hesitating to speak up when they clearly have a strong opinion or idea?

· Are people afraid of being judged harshly or told their idea is “crazy” or “dumb” in a team setting?

 

Now, that’s a lot of stuff to keep an eye on. (Hey…no one ever said that being the Scrum Master was an easy job.) So, let’s say that you notice something. What do you do about it? How do you head-off fear and/or actually do something about it?

Well, if someone on the team shares a concern or asks for help, be sure to thank them for bringing it up and offer them support, or try to connect them with someone who can. If people are hesitant to speak up in a large group setting, approach them after the meeting, and discuss it in a more casual environment. If they need some encouragement or support, find a way to share their ideas with the team in a less intimidating way. Find ways to bring new team members on-board and make them feel connected quickly. Make sure no one is discouraging open and honest conversation by dominating conversations or by openly criticizing ideas or opinions, even jokingly. Joking, while good natured, can be misconstrued as criticism, and simply telling a teammate that they “just can’t take a joke” is a great way to alienate them and ensure their participation in future activities is limited. Besides, some of the biggest discoveries in history started with an original premise that was totally out there!

I’ve given talks on fear at a number of conferences, and every time people have approached me afterwards saying “I feel that way too. It’s so good to know I am not alone!” Research shows that around 70% of people struggle with these kinds of fears, and based on my experience, it is higher in IT! That means that in any given meeting you attend, MOST of the people in the room are afraid to share their thoughts for fear of negative consequences. Imagine all of the great ideas being squandered and land mines we are failing to avoid.

Hopefully you’re already thinking of ways to improve the quality of your team, and ultimately of the products you are delivering. Strive to be more vigilant, more supportive, more honest, and you will be well on your way to creating a high-quality and high-performing team!

 

If you’re attending quest, I also have a few sessions there that you may want to check out if this article spoke to you.

Getting Your Agile Team Unstuck! Tips and Tricks for Avoiding Common Agile Setbacks: http://qaiquest.org/2017/sessions/half-day-tutorial-getting-your-agile-team-unstuck-tips-and-tricks-for-avoiding-common-agile-setbacks/

Fear and (Self) Loathing in IT: A Healthy Discussion on Imposter Syndrome: http://qaiquest.org/2017/sessions/fear-and-self-loathing-in-it-a-healthy-discussion-on-imposter-syndrome/ 

And if you’re not attending Quest feel free to send me a message via this blog or on Twitter!

1

Permission to Fail

by Angela 20. March 2014 18:04

Occasionally something happens to me that I feel the need to share. OK it’s more than occasionally, if you follow me on Twitter you probably know a lot more about me than you ever wanted to. But this was particularly noteworthy. Mostly because it has reinforced something I’d always heard but never experienced myself before.  Well, I probably had but not quite in THIS way. Today, I was given permission to fail.

I’m one of those people who wants to make everyone happy, and for everyone to like me. I know, isn’t that true of everyone? But it is an especially big part of my personality, and it bleeds into my work-life in many ways, not always for the better.  I strive to focus on the “big picture” while keeping an eye on the short term goals, but I often obsess too much about all of the possible outcomes of my actions/decisions and fear something could go wrong. This is true both professionally, and personally. Seriously, I am shocked I ever settled on fixtures for the guest bathroom because “oh my goodness what if I end up hating them in 5 years and now I am locked into those towel bars FOREVER!” The bigger failure in these  types of situations, is to take the safer route, to compromise on what is really important to minimize the risk of all possible negative outcomes, and then short change yourself and/or your client. And heck, usually the worst case scenario of making a wrong choice is a little lost time, some rework, and a valuable lesson.

My point is that you can’t be so hung up on avoiding potential failures that you constantly settle for “safe” paths that may meet your immediate needs and avoid any potential issues, but that in the long term turn out to be a mediocre solution at best.  It seems so obvious in a microcosm - if you’re going to fail, “fail fast” and do better next time. Right? But often times when I’m dealing with other areas of my life, I fail to heed the advice I so often give other people every day at work. So back to my original point.

I was getting particularly anxious about an upcoming meeting. I was definitely over-thinking it, to the point where I felt almost too paralyzed to make a choice about how to handle things, for fear of failure. Somewhere deep in my brain I’d decided that if I made one bad decision, said one thing that was not absolutely perfect, that I’d let my boss down, myself down, I’d ruin everything we had worked for, and as an added bonus I’ve put a permanent blemish on the reputation of all WOMEN in IT to boot ::cue dramatic music::  I’d think I was crazy to do this to myself if so many other people that I have talked to recently didn’t struggle through the same feelings themselves.

But then it happened. I was relaying some of these fears to my boss, he listened patiently and then said to me “what’s the worst thing that can happen? We lose this deal, we learn from it, we move on, we do better next time”. I’m pretty sure I sat in stunned silence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually shocked he said it. But it was like an epiphany, and I felt a little dumb for feeling like it was an epiphany.  It’s so obvious. But sometimes I need to not only be reminded of things like this, but I need to hear it out loud from someone like my boss for them to really stick.

I think giving ourselves permission to fail can be critical to our own development, personally and professionally.  So try it sometime, and be sure to give someone else permission to fail if you see them sinking into a tar pit of possibilities rather than making an educated guess and trying it out. Your coworker, your direct report, your significant other, heck even your kids…  You won’t regret it.

Tags:

career | failure | personal growth | XKCD

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