Sunday, October 17, 2010

How well do you know your team ?- Asking the questions that matter

With most of the work in today's world getting more collaborative in nature, with the world around us getting flatter by the day, with the teams around us getting more and more diverse, the true success of the team's endeavors more often than not lies in the answer to this question- "How well do you know your team ?"

We live in a "Faceless" work era. Looking back, there are several instances where i have been involved in doing business with the people successfully over years without even having to see or meet them. This may have sounded very astonishing probably during the generation when my parents were working but now every other employee might have a same experience to share. But whatever it is- i am still amazed at the ability of human beings to work together and achieve success together without having to see each other and without understanding the underlying emotions, with just the strands of work sharing that common goal connecting them together. In this situation, the success could not be taken for granted and is not assured unless you know the team members better.

In the question- "How well do you know your team ?" the word "you" does not necessarily denote a leader, though people without effort tend to believe that it’s only the leader who has to know the team to ably get the work done. Well, it’s true for sure but the "You" (in that question) actually represents everyone in the team irrespective of their designations and roles people play in the team. It’s not only in the case of Self-managed teams that team members need to know each other but also the teams that function under autocratic setup where a Single leader takes majority of decisions. In such a setup, even though a Leader takes majority of decisions and setups up the strategy, the plans tend to remain as "Paper Plans" unless they are executed well. It is the team dynamics that is one of the important factor that decides how well the plan gets executed.

I have myself been in position of a "designated" Leader for quite a few projects and my experience suggests to me that understanding the team members is an important dimension to the leadership and without spending adequate efforts in this direction all the success as a leader is superficial to me. People are not machines, afterall. One thing i hate inherently is calling or referring to people as "Resources". People are the most important assets in a Knowledge economy. To me, "Resources" is the term best used to represent things such as Hardware, Software etc. that helps People in achieving overall mission. Referring to people as mere "Resources" is no less than being a derogatory phrase to me. I think for a leader one of the foremost task is to know the people who he works for (i.e. his team), and the people who help him achieve the overall objectives.

In this post and subsequent posts on this i would try and mention the attempts or techniques that i have employed in my experience to know the team members better. Hoping to start a meaningful dialog with readers to understand their views on this important but often neglected topic.

The Technique- "Asking the Questions that matter" :
The technique that i wanted to talk about in this blog is as simple as Asking the Questions that matter to the people you as a leader work for. I keep using the phrase "to the people you as a leader work for" while describing the work sphere of a leader because i firmly believe that gone are the days when the perception of leadership was that people work for you. We live in a age when people who you lead are often more smart than you are in many aspects and without their presence the existence of a leader is zilch.

As a part of "Asking the Questions that matter" technique, below is the excerpt of an email that i usually send to people who i have started to work with as a leader or even to those who i have been working for some time. I learned this technique in one of my trainings at Stephen Covey long back, though i have actually customized some parts to my needs-

Hi (Name of the Person),
As we work together, I’d like to know more about you so I can help you to grow and develop and make your highest and best contribution. Please take a few minutes to respond to the following questions.

• What kind of work have you always loved doing?
• Is there anything about your job that you dislike ?
• What job-related opportunities are you passionate about and are looking forward to?
• What do you feel (skills etc.) you are really good at?
• What are the areas you think you need to grow and develop further ? What opportunities do you foresee for growth and development here?
• Is there a way you think your work environment can be further improved?
• What significant contribution do you strive to make in your current role?

I would like you to treat this conversation as confidential and respond as much as you honestly know and after I get your responses, I’d like to sit down together and discuss this further.

Please let me know if you can send me your responses by (Whatever is the deadline) or sooner. If you need more time, let me know.



How do people generally respond to this ?
In my experience, the people who receive this email, can respond in one of the four ways-
1. Sensing an opportunity to let the leader know his or her aspirations, the person does best to respond with the correct information to the best of his or her knowledge.
2. People generally will be defensive and would not write anything controversial that is completely out of the norm and give superficial replies.
3. People vent out their frustrations and write stern remarks.
4. People do not respond at all.

How do you interpret the response ?
An experienced leader will easily recognize under which of the above four categories do the people's response falls under and for others, it might take a bit of application of common sense to figure out the category of the response.

In my assessment, whatever the team member respond, it’s a winning situation for a leader. Below are my interpretations of the above responses-

1. Of course, this is the best response. It gives a crucial insights for a leader into his team's liking and dislikes, aspirations etc. The responses form an ideal platform for further meaningful discussions and help in effectively marrying the work priorities with team member's greatest strengths and aspirations.

2. The second response will be easier to figure out and the effective leader will align the follow-up discussion and dig deeper into the real issues. It will require asking more focused questions face-to-face. But generally the good responses from such discussions come only after the required trust has been established between the leader and the team. It might be good for the leader to judge and figure out the exact reasons why the team member was not open to him in first place and work to rectify any problems.

3. The third response is an obvious indicator for the leader that something is seriously wrong that needs to be addressed with higher priority. Also, the leader should appreciate the honesty of the person and not take the remarks personally. The leader needs to be displaying genuine empathy is follow-up discussions.

4. Regarding the fourth response, no news is not always the good news. This may also indicate the lack of basic trust that is not allowing the person to freely share his views with the leader. Again a meaningful follow-up discussion (may be many) help to pin down the real issues.

This technique is helpful in the sense that it gives a platform for a good follow-up talk. This helps provide a right kind of start and if done at the start of relationship, helps build the necessary trust with the people. But bear in mind that such trust is usually not so strong. Unless meaningful, genuine follow-up discussions happen and people get to see the results, such trust will diminish sooner than later.

I hope to share few more techniques to getting to know your team based on your responses to this post. Please do share your thoughts.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My foray into Weekend Testing

I should have forayed with Weekend Testing a while ago but somehow could not. Its not wise to go into the excuse mode as to why i was not able to yet, so i wont take the discussion there. But what i want to be focusing here is my experience into Weekend testing.
The challenge posed to participants was to figure out which is best platform/tool to conduct the Weekend testing session. The setup for Weekend Testing Session# 48 was by itself challenging in the sense that it asked for finding out the best solution by testing the new contender tool (Old, tried and tested one being “Skype”). The new contender was a Real Time Collaboration tool called Pligus . I wont go into the details of the features of this tool but would certainly like to share my quick learnings out of the session-

• I had realized earlier but now experienced first-hand that Weekend Testing is quite an unique platform in which Testers irrespective of their Geographies and cultures get together in a session which is devoid of any Office Politics, without any interruptions to focus only one thing, which is Pure Testing.

• I had been involved quite much in Competitive Software Analysis in the past and this session refreshed my experience. The prime relearning that i had was to compare the two or more Software Product in question per feature. One way to quickly do these session to decompose the features of the product that you already know and try and find the same/similar features in the other product under question. As a next step, try and find any other enhanced features in the product under test.

• I revived the art of questioning. Was glad to see so many questions being ask from all quarters as soon as the challenge was given to the virtual teams. Questioning helped refine everyone's approach towards the task at hand and also at times added to confusion as the questions kept coming from all the participants. But i guess this confusion is useful in the end result and is not totally avoidable.

• My current Job profile of late did not allow me to test as much so this session was very much redeeming for me.

I could not attend the entire session because of some prior commitment but still could gather many positives as listed above. Looking forward for more such sessions.