Talkin’ a Lot . . . Communication Problems in Agile Testing Agile Testing

Good communication is essential for success in any project, whether that is written or verbal communication. IT is about information, from the conception of the initial project through to the closedown and decommissioning of the system.

The means and media of communication are different in traditional and agile projects. In traditional projects, the key communication methods and media are written or electronic documents and meetings. The communications can be slow, bureaucratic, and hierarchical in nature, although that is not always the case. For many traditional projects, hierarchical power structures supported by words on paper define “the truth.” Unfortunately, much of the real truth about the project may remain hidden in people’s heads; the hierarchy may inhibit communication, and documents have gaps which are filled by people’s assumptions.

One reason for adopting an agile approach to projects is to speed up successful delivery into production, and this may be done by reducing hierarchy, reducing documentation, and reducing meetings. Communication is intended to be direct, honest, speedy, productive, and egalitarian. The agile project is intended to overcome communication problems. In agile projects, a typical approach might include reduced, less-formal documentation with speedy meetings and verbal decisions.

Key words for successful agile projects are team work, collaboration, communication, trust, and respect. But these qualities need to be worked for;just putting a group of people together does not make them a team. So let’s start by looking at some ways that communication may go wrong.

Some People Just Prefer a More Formal Style

It might be that people have misunderstood or don’t trust the agile methods;they may not realize that the agile approaches are not just an ad hoc approach but require the discipline of keeping one’s teammates informed. If a team orteam member is not used to working this way or if a manager is not sure how to manage an agile team, then the discipline of information exchange may be missed. People who prefer to communicate by email, written report, or formal presentation may be uncomfortable with the direct interpersonal interactions equired;they may be shy, or lack confidence, or prefer to put their thoughts in writing in order to review them more easily before showing them to others. Additionally, some people want to make a statement of fact or a decision once only–they want to issue their decision(email, report)and that’s it – job done! If someone feels forced to take part in agile processes against their will or disagrees about how to organize the team, then they may opt out from the collaborative process.

Some People Are Good at Talking but Not So Good at Listening

Those of us who generate ideas are often noisy and talkative, and we can dominate meetings. But sometimes we forget to listen to our quieter colleagues. We are only communicating in one direction, and our teammates cannot get us to listen. By sheer will power we move the meeting to the conclusion we want. But supposing it is the wrong conclusion? Or supposing there is more than one noisy person in the room and we don’t agree with each other? Discussions may degenerate to an inconclusive argument, and the rest of the team members mentally pack their bags and leave. They no longer want to contribute.

Some People Just Don’t Get On

If team members do not get on with each other, and there are personality clashes, it may become difficult to collaborate. This can be exacerbated if anyone abuses the collaborative approach– if meetings allow the “loudest voice” always to win, if there is bullying, or people fall into abusive behavior. This can happen if anyone adopts parent–child relationships in the team, as described in The Transactional Manager. We think we are exchanging facts, but actually our exchanges become loaded with emotions, and not always constructive ones. We end up telling each other off, or capitulating when we are challenged incorrectly. Wagner suggests that:

We are all six people rather than just one and that some of these six “inner people” are effective in dealing with others, but some of the “inner people” are not so useful.

The six inner people or ego states Wagner identifies are as follows:

  1. The natural child is an effective ego state that acts spontaneously, expresses feelings, and has need for recognition, structure, and stimulation.
  2. The adult is an effective ego state that is logical and reasonable;it deals in facts rather than feelings.
  3. The nurturing parent is an effective ego state that is firm with others, but also understanding, sensitive, and caring.
  4. The critical parent is an ineffective ego state that uses body language, gesture, and tone of voice to “tell others off” perhaps by sarcasm, pointing the finger, or raised voice.
  5. The rebellious child is an ineffective ego state that gets angry and stays angry, is very negative, does not listen, and may deliberately forget things or procrastinate.
  6. The compliant child is an ineffective ego state that blames itself, uses a soft voice, whines, is very careful and self-protective.

Communication between the effective ego states is generally useful . . . If we cross into the ineffective ego states, we will argue, whine and blame without communicating or changing anything; in fact we may make things worse[72].

People Use Information as Power

For some people, information is the source of their power. By hiding information, they maintain their power base in the organization. The mistaken belief that they are uniquely able to solve certain problems–perhaps particular system knowledge–means that collaboration will be a threat to them. They may express this by saying that no one else has the knowledge to solve those problems. Or, they may cite loss of confidentiality and security requirements as a reason to withhold information. These may in some circumstances be valid arguments, but they may be red herrings.

Methods of Communication May Be Inappropriate

The number, style, length, and recordkeeping for meetings may not favor collaboration. Recordkeeping may be inadequate or overdetailed;either extreme prevents good information exchange.

Environment Is Not Conducive to Collaboration

The project may not be sited or equipped in a way that fosters good communications and collaborative behavior. For example, if there is no team room or if the team is on a split site, this will reduce face-to-face communication. In The Mythical ManMonth, Fred Brooks pointed out what a short distance away people need to be before they stop communicating well. A colleague has just observed this on a project;the developers and testers were moved to only 100 meters apart in the same open plan office, but they had reverted to communicating only by email. Attempts to run agile projects without co-located teams will require far more effort to maintain communication. Organizations attempting to run projects across split sites, multiple countries, and multiple time zones are setting themselves additional challenges for communication and collaboration. Part of the environment is the equipment available to the team; if there are problems with computer equipment communications technology, and information storage and retrieval, the project team will not be able to communicate well.

None of these problems are unique to agile teams; the same problems apply to traditional projects. It is just that in traditional projects it might be easier to hide the consequences for longer.


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