How to Best Use Indispensable People

This is a guest post by Johanna Rothman

For years, we asked people to reinforce the same skills. Now, we’re asking people to share their knowledge. What do you do when you want to use an agile approach, and you have an “indispensable” tester?

Dave, a tester, knew the data part of this product inside and out. He was fond of saying that he could unlock the secrets of the data with his queries. And, he was the only one who could unlock those secrets.

Now, in month six of their agile transformation, Nina, the test manager, knew she had a big problem. Dave was not collaborating as part of his cross-functional team.

She’d asked Dave to work with other people on the team. He’d sighed, looking at his shoes. “I don’t really like other people,” he said softly. “I like the data.”

Nina knew that team collaboration works. And, she knew Dave wasn’t a collaborator by nature. She needed to manage the risk of Dave being the only person who was a database expert in the test group.

She decided to try these three ideas:

  1. Have Dave teach what he did to the other testers.
  2. Ask Dave to collaborate as an experiment.
  3. Ask Dave to help solve the problem.

Nina thought that teaching might be something that would appeal to Dave. She decided to start there.

Teach Something Small

Nina thought about all of the ways Dave could teach something small to the project team or the other testers and generated these ideas:

  • How he reset the database to a known state between tests and in the middle of a test run.
  • How he created complex queries.
  • Maybe even cardinality and ordinality and how he used each of them for tests.

In her next one-on-one with Dave, Nina broached the subject. She said, “Dave, I’d like you to teach some of what you know to the other testers so that they can learn about databases.”

Dave looked at her. His forehead creased. “Are you planning to fire me?”

Nina sat back. “No! Not at all. Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re asking me to teach what I know.”

Nina leaned in and said, “I am quite pleased that you work here,” she said. She paused. “And, I’m a little concerned that you’re the only tester who knows the details of how to test a database.”

“No, no, Ellen and Lakshmi also know. I’m not the only one,” he said.

“I don’t think they know as much as you do,” Nina said. “You always seem to finish your work faster. I don’t think you have superpowers.” She smiled. “But, I do think you understand the technology at a depth they do not have. What do you think?”

Dave nodded. “I do seem to understand more. Okay, I can see that.” He paused.

Nina explained her ideas. Dave agreed that resetting the environment would be an excellent place to start. She asked, “Do you think you could talk for 20 minutes at our next group meeting on Monday? It doesn’t have to be formal. It can be a ‘brain-dump’ of what you do now.”

He nodded. “Sure.”

“Excellent,” Nina said. “I’ll add you to the agenda.”

Dave nodded.

At the next group meeting, Dave used a demo of his tests to show the other testers how he reset the database. That’s when Ellen asked a question comparing the way she reset the database. They discussed the similarities and differences between how they worked.

The entire group moved the discussion from resetting the database to resetting network connections, and more. At the end of the meeting, Nina told Dave she appreciated his leadership in helping people think through their alternatives.

He nodded.

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Experiment with Collaboration

At her next one-on-one, Nina asked Dave to discuss more of his expertise at the next few group meetings. He did. The more he explained how he worked, the more everyone else experimented with their work. In a couple of months, every tester was able to test at more depth and to use some of their new shortcuts to finish more work.

Nina decided to ask Dave if he would experiment with a more collaborative way of working. In their one-on-one, Nina asked Dave if he was willing to pair with another tester.

“No, absolutely not,” he said.

“What about with a developer?” Nina asked.


“Even as an experiment? I have a hypothesis about how you might teach people in the moment, not just in our group meetings.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to have to talk and work at the same time.”

Nina nodded. “I can understand that you don’t want to experiment with pairing,” Nina said. “I’m disappointed, but I understand. That’s your personal decision. However, I still have this problem that you’re the point person about databases. Can you help me decide what to do next?”

Nina knew she couldn’t impose collaborative approaches on a person. She decided to ask for help.

Ask the Expert for Help

“I still have this problem that you’re more of an expert than other people are,” she said.

Dave said, “I don’t really see how this is a problem.”

“Ah,” Nina said. “You want to take a vacation next summer, right?”

He nodded.

“You should take a vacation,” she said. “And we have a big release planned then. We’ll start with our beta customers in May, with any luck. And, we’ll be testing, iterating through what we need to do starting in late June, just before your July plans.”

Dave frowned.

Nina ticked off these next points as she said them. “I want you to take your vacation. I don’t want to try to contact you. And, I want us to have a seamless transition from your testing to other people on the team.”

Dave shook his head. “But I want to keep testing the database.”

“I want you to, also,” Nina said. “But we have many more database needs than you have time. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we needed you to do the testing for that big feature, and we needed you to help out on the production support testing? Our tests weren’t robust enough?

“Yeah,” Dave said.

“I felt awful because I didn’t know what we needed first,” Nina said. “I went with production support, but we need you to spread your expertise around and not keep it. If you only want to communicate with the database, that’s fine. But you can’t be the only expert. I need to do better risk management.”

Dave sighed. “I really hate pairing,” he said.

“Okay. You got a better idea?” Nina asked.


“How about you give this some thought, and we discuss this again in a few days?”

“Okay,” he said.

In their next one-on-one, Nina and Dave generated these possibilities:

  • Dave would record videos for specific questions, so he didn’t have to pair with anyone.
  • Dave would offer “office hours” every day. If anyone had a question, Dave would be “in” at that time. Office hours allowed both people to schedule time when they wouldn’t interrupt themselves. He would monitor his time and see if he needed to offer more availability.
  • Dave would continue his 20-minute “brain-dumps” to the entire group to explain how he worked to the other testers.

Dave and Nina both decided to monitor how much time Dave spent working with other people.

Collaboration Takes Many Forms

When organizations used waterfall approaches, people-as-experts seemed like a good idea. We know better now. And, the more your organization wants to use agile approaches, the more everyone needs to rethink what it means to have an indispensable person.

Nina and Dave have ways to make sure Dave helps the rest of the group learn what he knows. Dave’s collaboration isn’t what I might think of as “team-based collaboration,” and it works for him, for now.

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Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” provides frank advice for your tough problems. She helps leaders and teams see problems and resolve risks and manage their product development. Johanna is the author of fourteen books and hundreds of articles. Find the Pragmatic Manager, a monthly email newsletter, and her blogs at and

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