Agile Tester as Servant Leader

This is a guest posting by Johanna Rothman.

If you’ve spent any time in the agile community, you’ve probably heard the phrase “servant leader.” Servant leaders help the entire team succeed regardless of the leader’s position. I like to think of servant leaders as optimizing for the entire team, not one person. Watch Pam learn how to serve the rest of her team as an agile tester.

Pam’s heart sank. The team was two days away from the end of the iteration. She was the only tester, and the developers had just added three more stories to her Ready to Test queue. She was overloaded already with her work in progress—and now it was impossible.

The Product Owner popped into the team’s standup and asked, “Our Very Important Customer has a big problem. Can we just add these two stories into this iteration?”

Everyone had looked at each other. Stu, the Scrum Master said, “Sure!” before anyone else could say anything. The Product Owner said, “Thanks!” and left.

Pam looked at her team members. They all looked at their shoes. She said, “What just happened here? Did we really agree to do this?”

Tim, one of the developers, looked up. He said, “Heck, no. I didn’t agree. Did anyone else agree to adding these two stories?”

One by one, the entire team shook their heads. Pam heard a chorus of Nos.

“Okay,” Pam said. She turned to the Scrum Master. “You can go tell the Product Owner we didn’t agree,” she said. “Just because you did doesn’t mean we did. You made this mess. You can unmake it.”

He started to talk.

Pam said, “No. You don’t get to say anything yet. I was worried before we started the standup this morning. Look at my WIP (Work in Progress) on the board. See those two stories in progress and the other three in my Ready column? I can’t finish the two stories, never mind the other three. I need help.”

Stu shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “We have to finish all this work. We don’t have a choice.”

Tim said, “We always have a choice. We might not like our choices but we have them.”

Pam said, “Okay, explain any of our ‘commitments’ to the customers, especially the promises we didn’t make. I have some ideas, but we need to work differently if we’re going to do anything. Let’s have a lean coffee or something other than standup to identify what we need to do and how we’ll do it.

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Servant Leaders Help Identify the Team’s Reality

Agile testers, Servant leaders, Coaching, Helping others succeed, Characteristics of servant leaders, Testers as leaders, Agile community. TestRail.

Servant leaders are self-aware and listen to the people on the team. Even before the standup, Pam realized her WIP was too large. Seeing those additional three stories meant the testing was now impossible for one person to finish. Pam was aware of her limitations.

When Pam called attention to Stu’s actions, she showed how she listened to what the team members didn’t say. Stu was the only person who answered the Product Owner’s request.

One thing that’s common to all agile approaches: no one, including Scrum Masters, speaks on behalf of the team. An agile culture requires that the team decide everything about the work: agreement to what they will deliver and when, and how they will accomplish that work. Pam realized that they weren’t living up to their working agreements and helped the team consider other alternatives.

The team decided to conduct a lean coffee to understand and solve the problem of too much testing WIP. During the meeting, Pam explained why she couldn’t test as fast as she wanted. The developers had been in such a rush to “finish” their features, they hadn’t created API and other testing hooks, so Pam could create automated tests quickly.

Instead, Pam was stuck manually testing and adding her requests for these hooks to the backlog. As a team, they’d discussed this problem before. They had even agreed that each of these stories had to have a hook as part of their acceptance criteria.

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Servant Leaders Help Others Grow

Agile testers, Servant leaders, Coaching, Helping others succeed, Characteristics of servant leaders, Testers as leaders, Agile community. TestRail.

As part of the lean coffee, a couple of the developers admitted that they didn’t know how to create the hooks.

Pam explained what she needed in a hook. She didn’t write code, so she couldn’t show them examples. However, she could explain what Tim had done for a feature earlier in the iteration. She asked Tim to explain the internals of what he’d done.

Tim started by saying, “I don’t think this is perfect, but—”

Pam interrupted. “Hold it right there, Tim,” she said. “You don’t need to be perfect. None of us need to be perfect. We only have to do what we can and refactor later.”

Tim smiled. “Okay, thanks.” He continued explaining how he had created a variety of hooks for Pam to use.

The other team members asked questions. Pam explained what she needed. Tim explained how he had implemented her requests. The team members were excited—for really finishing their stories and by being able to provide Pam easier-to-test stories.

Servant Leaders Unleash Other People’s Energy

Agile testers, Servant leaders, Coaching, Helping others succeed, Characteristics of servant leaders, Testers as leaders, Agile community. TestRail.

The team members agreed they hadn’t really finished the three stories. They decided to move the stories back into the Development column.

Pam said, “You know, we accomplished a lot in this quick discussion as a team. Are you willing to consider mobbing for an hour to finish them?”

Tim said, “I’m ready if you are. How about the rest of you?”

As a team, they agreed to mob together. That took the rest of the morning, but they finished those three stories. Pam still had the two stories remaining.

“It took us a little longer than we anticipated, but those three stories are really all done,” she said. “Thanks for that. Are you willing to either pair or mob on the automated testing for the other two stories I have in testing progress?”

One by one, the team members agreed to mob, just for another couple of hours. They still had other work to finish for the iteration and were worried they wouldn’t finish, never mind the additional work the Product Owner wanted.

They finished one story in a couple of hours. As they created the test automation they discovered the stories weren’t actually complete—which is why Pam had such trouble with them.

Four developers decided to pair on the two stories, one pair on each story. Pam would coach the pairs to make sure they fixed the problems.

Servant Leaders Don’t Need All the Answers

Agile testers, Servant leaders, Coaching, Helping others succeed, Characteristics of servant leaders, Testers as leaders, Agile community. TestRail.

Many of us still have a sense of leaders as people with all the answers. However, servant leaders don’t need all the answers, if they can help people see the current reality, help other people grow and unleash other people’s creativity. Often, because testers can see the perspective for the feature, the tester can be the servant leader their team needs.

This article was written by Johanna Rothman. Johanna, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” provides frank advice for your tough problems. Her most recent book is “Create Your Successful Agile Project: Collaborate, Measure, Estimate, Deliver.”

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