Saturday, March 13, 2010

Key professional lessons from Football coaching principles

In football circles, the mention of Don Shula doesnt need any introduction. He was a coach par excellence of Miami Dolphins in American National Football League (NFL). What stands him apart from most of other generations of Football coaches is sustained success in pressure cooker situations. If you have any doubts about what a pressure cooker situation means with respect to Football, just watch any high intensity international or even European club level matches to get an idea. Maddening crowds, Sharp critics, tensed coaches- it has all the elements of a nerve wrecking drama. In such an environment, Shula set numerous records in his 33 seasons as a head coach. He is the All-Time leader in Victories with 347. He is first in most games coached (526), most consecutive seasons coached (33) and many more.
His coaching was regarded as out of the world and to top it all his consistency in achieving super results over the years set many standards which are hard (if not impossible) to match.

Don Shula teamed up with Ken Blanchard to write an impressive book on coaching called the little book of coaching . This book is quite unique in its writing style as Don Shula shares his Football coaching methods that helped him achieve all the results that he did and Ken Blanchard on the other hand, presented his understanding of those very principles and utilized in day to day dealing. The content of this book is engaging and for sure opens up many a thought processes and the text that follows represents my attempt to decipher these valuable coaching fundamentals and its potential use in coaching Software testers-

[The text in Italics below represents the excerpts from the book, mainly in the form of quotes from Don Shula]

The Bull's eye philosophy:
I believe if you want to hit a target, you should aim for the Bull's eye. If you aim for the Bull's eye and miss, you will still hit the target. But if you are aiming only for the target and miss, you will be nowhere.

In 1972 NFL season, Don Shula's team won each and every game and remained unbeaten. And this was the goal that he set for his team.
While leading your testing teams, have the highest goals set for your team. As an example- say finding all the non regression bugs by the first iteration of testing as one the goals. If testers know this to be as their goal, they will strive to achieve this (of course if provided with the right kind of motivation). But if the goal stands like- Find all the non regression defects by the first Release candidate build, it is very likely that there will be last minute bugs before the release.
As a coach, always describe the vision of Bull's eye to your teams. More often than you might think, the team members do not know or have a clearer picture of how a perfect work output looks like. And in absence of such a vision, they adopt for a relaxing, comfortable goal that will invariably make them complacent. Drawing the vision of Bull's eye does not require one to be a magician but requires two things- One- clarity of thoughts i.e. first knowing what a perfect work output is like and Second- Ability to weave the picture of perfection for the team members, which they can strive to achieve. More the team strives to achieve the Bull's eye vision, more closer will it reach to perfection.
As Leo Burnett rightly quoted-
"If you reach for the stars, you might not quite get one, but you won’t end up with a handful of mud, either."

Overlearn, Overlearn, Overlearn...:
Overlearning means that the players are so prepared for a game that they have the skill and confidence needed to make the big play. More than anything else, overlearning- constant practice, constant attention to getting the details right everytime- produces hunger to be in the middle of the action. Perfection happens only when the mechanics are automatic.

As a coach of a Software testing, it pays to have your team reach the "Overlearning" state. Overlearning for Software testers cover many critical aspects of the Job-
- The testers are aware of their prime roles in the current project/scheme of things.
- The testers are trained so adequately that they almost simulate and visualize the situations and their response to it.
- The testers work independently as they strive to reach the auto-pilot mode i.e. not needing minor directions.
- The testers achieve Execution excellence- they dont just stare up the steps but step up the stairs.

The above areas form the core of activities for a Software testing coach also as these are the ones that actually are the difference between an average team and a performing team. The coach would need to Overlearn themselves first and then have their teams follow the suit.

Lead by Example:
I dont know any other way but lead by example.
During the 1994-95 season Don Shula ruptured his Achilles tendon. The day he had the operation was the first regular season practice Shula had missed in his twenty-five years with the Dolphins. After the operation, Don was taken to recovery and then to his hospital room, where he was scheduled to stay overnight. By 2:30 in the afternoon, he'd had enough of the hospital. He asked the doctor for his crutches and was on his way home shortly afterward. By 5:30 the next morning, he was up and wanting to attend Mass and then go to practice. By 10:00 A.M. he was on the practice field in a golf cart.

Moral of the story- if as a coach, if you expect commitment, demonstrate the same to your team. If you expect excellence, demonstrate the same to your team. The team wont learn anything in a better way than seeing you do the same very things you want them to do.

Change Plan as situation demands:
There is no point sticking to a game plan that's not working. The sun does not rise and fall based on one person's judgment. Effective coaches are continually out there scanning for data and advice that will make their decision more intelligent.

Software products probably undergo more changes during its entire life-cycle than any other products that ever existed. That really makes Software testing a very dynamic entity.
In spite of this, there is a growing tendency among the test owners to stick to a Testing Plan document that gets created at the start of the release and is probably never looked at through out the duration of the project. Effective Software testing coaches realize the importance of updating the overall plan as need arises and keep the team updated and informed. Such coaches can sense, anticipate the changes and be well prepared in advance.

Apply twenty-four hour rule equally to Failures and Successes:
I had a twenty-four hour rule. I allowed myself, my coaches, and our players a maximum of twenty-four hours after football game to celebrate a victory or bemoan a defeat. During that time, everyone was encouraged to experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat as deeply as possible, while learning as much as we could from that same experience. Once the twenty-four hour deadline had passed, we put it behind us and focused our energies on preparing for next opponent.

I feel this rule is very much applicable to handle mistakes and errors at workplace. Not all days are similar, there may be some days you do well and at other you end up doing mistakes. A typical bad day at office for a Software tester can be- Missing a deadline, missing to find a bug that could have been found earlier, committing an error in verifying a test properly, missing to gather right information to advocate defect appropriately and many more. Many people let these disappointments affect them and future work tasks severely. I think the role of a coach becomes greater and significant during these situation. Enforcing a twenty-four hour rule can be immensely beneficial in these situations i.e. for twenty four hours feel the current situation as much as possible and to an extent to learn from it enough not to repeat it excessively and after twenty fours- like they say- "let bygones be bygones".
Personally, i dont think the successes should also be lived only for twenty-four hours as more they are remembered in a right way (not losing the focus on present), it acts as a positive source of energy for the team members.

Be consistent:
Consistency is not behaving the same way all the time; it is behaving the same way in similar circumstances.

People generally have varying notions of consistency. Generally speaking, if as a coach you give no response/feedback to your team member when he or she does well and you neither give response/feedback when he or she commits a mistake- then thats not consistency. Though the conventional wisdom will call such a behavior consistent because as a coach one acted the same way in both the situations. As Shula clarifies, Consistency is actually behaving the same way in similar circumstances.
Withholding feedback when it should be given and not praising an effort when it should be applauded are an example of coach being inconsistent with his team members.
Consistent coaches deliver consistent results.

Personally notice your team:
You cant catch your people doing something right if you're not there to see them do something right.

People appreciate praise more when its genuine. A coach can be genuine in expressing his praise for the team only when he or she witnesses it firsthand. If as a Software testing coach, you are not there to directly witness your team member logging that all important bug or delivering a great presentation or convincing a developer, you are for sure not up-to-the-mark there.
Being personally there with the team when they are in pressure situations or not even in so much pressure situations gives them a belief that they can look upto you and also that you will be fair with them in performance related dealings.

Managing meetings effectively:
I want to make sure that my team came out of every meetings a little more intelligent than when they went in, that they came off the practice field a little better prepared mentally and physically to play the game than they were before the practice.

In the corporate world, meetings are for sure necessary evils. Organizations need meetings to synergize, sync-up and work towards the shared vision. But at the same time most of the meetings turn out to be ineffective with a very little takeaway for all the stakeholders. Below is an interesting nugget from this source about the way meetings are conducted in US corporations-

"More often than not, company and department meetings are inefficient, disorderly and ineffective. Every day, approximately 11 million meetings are held in the United States. That means roughly 37 percent of employee time is spent in meetings, according to the National Statistics Council. What's more, researchers have found that nearly all meeting attendees (91 percent) admit to daydreaming during meetings, while more than one-third (39 percent) have dozed off."

I think you would appreciate that the above inference is not only US specific but the rest of the world is not too far behind. Being a coach, Don Shula's thinking about ensuring that the team members should come out of the meeting little more intelligent and better is quite insightful. Even in the corporate meetings, the intent of meeting organizer is quite vital. This is where effective coaching can make a difference.
I feel as a coach of testing team or any team for that matter, if someone inculcates "making the team members more intelligent, more informed, more knowledgeable at the end of meeting" as a driving goal, we might probably see more happy faces and less dreamers during the day.

Do you already apply these principles in your coaching ? I would love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Important thing about your writing is that u not only mention new concepts but its correlation to the concerned area of work.
Good one...