Agile Communications - Agile Testing

Good communication is a fundamental principle of successful agile projects, and I would argue that the majority of agile best practices are communications-oriented. The following sections review some of the communications best practices highlighted in the case studies as being of particular benefit, including advice on offshored or distributed agile projects.

Co-location of Stakeholders

Co-location of stakeholders is a traditional and universally supported agile best practice throughout the case studies. Even the authors of those case studies(such as Thomas, Kingston, and May,)where there are issues about lack of co-location of staff accept that, in the ideal situation, the teams should be working together in the same place at the same time. A number of the case studies describe specific quality management benefits associated with co-location:

  • Norman reports that, where developers and testers are co-located, developers are able to gain an understanding and appreciation of the tester role and even develop a professional respect for testers and testing.
  • Sewell reports that the availability of testing practitioners at all stages of the project has been highly beneficial. For example, involving testers with the users and analysts during requirements elicitation has enabled the testers to challenge the testability of particular use cases–asking questions like “how would you verify if that(feature)works?”–with the result that the overall quality of the requirements has improved. Similarly, pairing developers and testers has enabled the testers to review unit test designs and provide their feedback to the developers, with the result that the effectiveness of unit testing has improved.
  • Thomas also reports the benefits of co-locating developers and testers in terms of the closer working relationship that he saw forming, in his case study;in a number of instances, developers were observed to actively seek out testers to obtain their views on new ideas that the developers were working on.
  • Co-locating the customer or users with testing practitioners also has benefits, such as allowing test analysts to speak to the users to clarify some aspect of a use case or user story during test case design, for example.

Non-co-located Teams

Although co-location of the stakeholders in an agile project is the ideal goal, a couple of the case studies(such as Thomas,; and Kingston,) describe projects where necessity(and the goal of saving costs)meant that some members of the team were offsite.

Thomas describes a project where most of the development was carried out in North America, with testing and release management in the United Kingdom. While Kingston describes a project that was
U.K. based(management, design, and the higher levels of test), the majority of the code development was offshored to India and the customer perspective was provided by a small team in the United States.

The case studies describe some very valuable best practices for improving the communications of non-co-located teams trying to work in an agile manner.

  • Set up and use an effective project communications and working infrastructure, such as
    • videoconferencing facilities in combination with tools to share and remotely operate workstations(Thomas);
    • Web 2.0 social networking products(Chana), including instant messaging and virtual meeting tools(such as Second Life)and
    • the use of distributed rocess enactment tools to support distributed collaborative development(Kingston).
  • Harmonize offshore time zones–adjust the working-day start and end times by perhaps thirty to sixty minutes in each location)to improve the overlap of the working hours between the different time zones (Kingston).
  • Be sensitive to different cultural and language differences between different sites(Evans); use simple and clear vocabulary, avoid using idiomatic phrases and/or colloquialisms, and don’t be afraid to repeat, reword, or stress some important point that needs to be communicated.
  • Consider having a representative from the offshored team co-locate with your local team; Kingston reports that this is a valuable approach to use in building a trusting relationship with the remote group. The local representative can also help address the language and cultural differences that can become amplified through poor remote communications.

Improving Interpersonal Communication

In addition to having the opportunity to communicate, a number of the case studies/address the issue of the quality of communication Evans;Kingston;and Evans;for example). That is, how can you ensure that all participants in a meeting are able to contribute to the success of the meeting? Holding a retrospective to discuss the lessons learned on the last iteration or on the project as a whole is likely to be less than successful if the person who knows the most is the least talkative, or the meeting is hijacked by someone who wants to tell everyone about their fantastic new sports car!

The following communications practices provide a valuable means of ensuring you get the most from your agile meetings:

  • Evansdescribes a technique called de Bono’s Six Hats in a Meeting, in which the members of a meeting are encouraged to “wear different hats,” each of which denotes some particular mode of thinking–for example, the Black Hat might represent a critical viewpoint, whereas the Green Hat might represent a lateral-thinking, brain-storming perspective. “Putting on a hat” allows an individual to move outside their perceived stereotype, perhaps allowing a very factual person to express emotional views, for example.The hats also provide a less personal metaphor for communicating;it may be easier and sound less critical to tell someone that they sound like they have their Black Hat on rather than telling them not to be so negative about something.
  • A number of the case studies (May, for example)highlight the issues that lack of focus in agile meetings can cause. A particular technique covered in Evans’case study that can help address this is that of Ishikawa fishbones. This graphical cause-and-effect analysis technique provides a highly focused approach for drilling down to the root causes of problems. The term fishbones refers to the graphical structure that is created as the technique proceeds;team members add their ideas (perhaps as part of a brain-storming exercise)tothe diagram, creating what looks like a fishbone. Evans alsodescribes the role of this technique to move from the problem space to a solutionby “drawing the diagram in reverse.”
  • What happens in an agile meeting(such as an application design workshop where active and effective communication is essential, but where the facilitator is finding it difficult to get the design discussion started or to keep the process running? Evans describes a technique termed a Weaver Triangle[72], which can be used to assist a team to focus on an overall aim or goal. This graphical technique is structured using a triangular diagram , which establishes a particular goal or aim at the top of the triangle. Through discussion, this highlevel goal is broken down into more specific goals, each of which are documented on the diagram under the top-level goal. Finally, specific objectives that will allow the goals to be achieved are discussed and documented at the base of the triangle. This analysis provides a team with a powerful technique to proceed from the specific(a high-level objective or goal), through clarification of the high-level objective into subgoals, and finally into specific objectives to achieve the subgoals and, hence, the overall objective.

If you would like to understand how to improve the quality of communications on agile(and traditional)projects in more detail.

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