Monday, August 30, 2010

Learning and Teaching and Leading

One thing I learned early on when teaching drumming students, particularly beginners, is that the person who learns the most is often the teacher.

It never seems to matter whether the lesson is an individual or group lesson, focused on one style or general drumming - the process of teaching beginners forces the instructor to reconsider things that the instructor simply does.  This forces the teacher to reconsider all that he does, find interesting foibles or potential weaknesses, then correct or change them as needed for working with the student. 

The interesting thing is that this reflection sometimes leads to profound understanding of what the student is learning and what the instructor is conveying.  When preparing for the odd lunch-and-learn or training session at the office I never really had that kind of an experience - or when presenting such sessions. 

On Improvement...

This last couple of weeks something interesting happened.  I've been preparing a presentation on Test Process Improvement for TesTrek in October.  I wasn't scheduled to present, or lead a workshop, but as a couple of presenters had to cancel, Viola!  I'm on the presenters list.  Then, a couple of other things came into my observation. 

There have been several conversations on email lists I'm a participant in, as well as forums, on the dreaded M word.  Yes - Metrics.

On top of this, I had a remarkably revealing email conversation with Markus Gartner - amazingly bright guy.  This came about because the questions I submitted for the "Ask the Tester" were submitted after the magic number of 10 had been reached.  However, they were forwarded to Markus and that presented me the opportunity to learn and be rinded of things I once knew and had forgotten (or channelled off into a safe place in my memory.)

My question to Markus was centered on his take of "Test Process Improvement" in an Agile environment.  The bulk of his response was reasonably close to what I expected - in fact, reassuringly close to what I had prepared for the presentation so my confidence level increased dramatically in what I was saying.  (Yes, a little reassurance is sometimes a good thing, particularly when one is a very little fish hanging out with very big fish.) 

He had one idea that I did not have.  And it left me gob-smacked.  Tacked onto an already interesting sentence about the organization's management, Markus said "... or they don't trust testing anymore."

On Trust...

I was immediately thrown back many years to when Developers were called Programmers and when I was working as a COBOL Programmer on a large IBM mainframe.  I had a Manager who did not trust his staff.  Not because they were inexperienced, but because he simply did not trust them.  To this day, I do not know why that was the case.  I can surmise why, but it has little to do with the point.  Suffice to say, it was an un-happy work environment. 

Markus made an interesting observation.  His point was that in Agile, the very purpose is to engender trust amongst all participants. Additionally, when management is invited to observe the meetings, they can gain an understanding of what is being done by their staff and as their understanding increases, so to should their level of trust. 

When a group or a team has lost the trust of its management, the task of regaining that trust is nigh-on insurmountable.  Likewise, if a manager or lead has lost the trust of the group they are to lead or manage, the results will almost certainly be dire.

On Process...

Thus, when the call comes down for "better metrics" or "process improvement" or any other number of topics.  What is the underlying message?  What is it that someone is hoping to gain?  Do they know?  CAN they know?  Are they guessing? 

Much is debated around QUANTifiable and QUALifiable considerations, measurement and understanding.  I am not nearly bright enough to join into that fray fully-fledged. 

What I have seen, however, is when Managers, Directors, VPs, EVPs, and big-bosses of all varieties are looking for something - nearly anything will suffice.  A depressing number of times, I have seen management groups flail around what is wanted - then issue and edict announcing the new policy or practice or whatever it is.  These tend to roll-out like clockwork, every three to six months. 

Each company where I have worked that followed that practice engendered a huge amount of cynicism, resentment and distrust.  The sad thing is that these rather stodgy companies - including some that were quite small and prided themselves on having no Dilbert-esque Pointy-Haired-Boss behaviors - were wasting an amazing opportunity.

The first step to fixing a "problem" is figuring out what the problem is.  If there is no understanding over why policies or procedures are changing and no feed-back loop on the purposes behind the changed, will the average rank-and-file worker stand up and say "What do you hope to change/improve/learn from this?"  At some companies - maybe.  But I have seen relatively few times where the combination of policy-dujour and staff willing to stick their necks out and ask questions both exist in the same organization. 

On Leadership...

What I have learned, instead, is to look at all sources of information.  Explain what the problem or perceived problem is.  Ask for input - then consider it fairly.  To do so is not a sign of weakness - it is a sign of strength.  That the leadership of the organization have enough trust in their workers to approach them with a problem and work together toward a solution.

This, in my mind, is the essence of building a team. 

If you throw a bunch of people together without a unifying factor and expect great things it is silly in the extreme.  In the military, "Basic Training" serves this purpose - laying the groundwork to trust your comrades and follow the direction of officers and non-commissioned officers.  In the end though, the object is teamwork:  learning to work together using each persons strengths to off-set others weaknesses. 

Why is it that so many managers miss this rather elementary point?  For a team to "work" they must learn to work together.  If the Lead or Manager has not built the group into one capable of working together, like a team, what, other than professional pride, will get any results at all? 

Although I can not prove this, in a scientific method as it were, I suspect that it is the essence of the problem mentioned above.  The question I do not know the answer to, although suspect it, is the question of leadership in this instance. 

Is it that they, the leaders, have no idea how to build a team?  Is it possible that the step of instructing the fledgling team and shaping it into the needed form was too challenging?  Could it be that in the process of doing so, their own closely held beliefs, habits and foibles were more dear than the building of a successful team?

If this basic lack is present, does it contribute to the selection of what is easy over what is right

These are the ideas that have been floating through my mind while preparing the presentation and workshop lessons for the session at TesTrek.  If the master knows that he is but a beginner in the craft, what of those who consider themselves experts in all aspects of our trade.

Can this be at the root of the behaviours I've seen first hand and read about?  Are they feeling so insecure in their own abilities that they mistrust their own staff, the team they are charged with leading?  Is it to make up for this lack, they flounder and grasp for tips or magic revelations that will show them the "path?"  Is that why there is a continuing and perpetual drive for Metrics and Process Improvement?

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