August 21, 2016 · Events CAST 2016

Being a force for change (a CAST 2016 introspection)

This is a standalone post reflecting on my experiences at CAST 2016. If you're interested in the ideas that are discussed here, I've posted a lot more material from the conference: TestRetreat, Tutorials, Day One, Day Two.

One of the strongest themes which ran through the sessions at CAST 2016 was that of testers being a force for change in the workplace: of having agency in your situation, and leveraging your reputation and relationships to help drive strategic improvement in your day-to-day work.

This is something which has been a struggle for me in the past. I frequently find myself battling with office politics; my first few career moves were almost entirely due to my own beliefs/desires rubbing-up against those of my employer, where my reaction was to look for work elsewhere. Frankly, I still see the same problems today, though to an extent I try to let them wash over me, and focus on doing the best I can for my situation.

CAST 2016 revealed an important gap in my thinking here. For as much as I feel comfortable with my own career progression, and delivering value within my own project, there's a wider question that I'm not asking which would benefit both my company and my colleagues: "What if we did this differently?"

This was summed-up nicely by Matt Heusser during a Lean Coffee session. He pointed out that, when confronted with a challenging environment, our options are "fight, flight or play dead". It occurred to me that - even though I'm now less prone to flight - I'm guilty of playing dead in situations where I haven't consider the fight option.

But fighting isn't something that comes naturally to us. We're raised in an education system which teaches us to learn the correct answer, to the correct question, and pursue no further. As Carol Brands pointed out during TestRetreat: "Nobody trains you to look for your own agency". In order to grow our autodidacticism, we have to effectively un-train our learning process, teaching ourselves that it's okay to try (and fail) if we can then adapt our working based on the information that we discover.

We can't do this in isolation - in an unsupportive environment, it's easy to develop a "fear of failure", and find ourselves second-guessing our decisions. Several CAST sessions proposed the idea of finding yourself a sponsor/advocate within your organisation: someone who can vouch for you and provide reassurance to the business if you feel compelled to explore away from the prescribed path.

You're also going to need to help your colleagues to find the same courage, inquisitiveness and determination. This can be a minefield, one that I spoke about at Brighton's #TestActually recently, and which I'll be talking about on a podcast in the coming weeks (stay tuned for more about that). People learn at varying paces, and flourish in different environments (e.g. group learning vs lone study). Don't try to prescribe a solution; instead, try to create the conditions which help them to develop. This certainly needn't be a hands-on process; great leaders know when it's time to stay out of the way.

You're unlikely to get asked to make this sort of change, particularly if you're within an organisation which seems overly invested in maintaining the status quo. As Katrina Clokie and Carol Brands suggested during their track session, if you see an opportunity to improve the situation for your team, and you can do it without harming your business objectives, just do it. Curtis Pettit echoed this with Grace Hopper's old adage: "It's often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission". For me, it's about personal integrity: if I see that something could be done better, I'm being neglectful if I'm not at least trying to make that improvement.

Next time you're told "We can't do that" or "We have to do it this way", explore why. Ask further to gain understanding as to the reason they're opposed to change. If this makes you uncomfortable, think about what the outcome might be if you don't ask. This won't be an easy process - Matt Heusser likened organisational change to "swimming upstream" in terms of the resistance you might face. But if we're striving to build the best teams which deliver quality products, we owe it to our organisations, to our teams, and to ourselves.

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