In my role as a volunteer youth leader in my Church, I have the opportunity to help put together a monthly activity. My group was responsible for the activity this month, and we chose to offer five team building exercises (all straight from http://www.wilderdom.com/games/InitiativeGames.html). We did four exercises in a rotation, and then all met together to perform the fifth. The exercises were:
- Minefield: each member of a group paired up. We set up a maze using chairs and tables, and had our pairs blindfold one person. The second person in the pair had to 'lead' their partner through the maze. The challenge in this game is that all partnerships are talking together, at the same time. The purpose of the exercise is to emphasize the need for communication as well as the ability to pick out the voice you're listening to.
- Toxic Waste: this is a group exercise. Participants encountered a bucket in the middle of a 10' circle and they're told the circle is full of toxins. They need to move the bucket out of the circle, and their resources are a bungee cord and ten thin ropes. The challenge is ingenuity, teamwork, and (again) communication.
- All Aboard! In this exercise, the team all stands on a tarp. The challenge is to fold up the tarp to be as small as possible, fitting the entire team on it, WHILE the team stands on it. Teamwork, spatial relations, etc.
- Helium Stick: I conducted this one. The team lines up in two parallel rows, sticks their hands out with their index fingers extended. A small stick (I used a 1/4" wood dowel) is placed on their extended fingertips and they are challenged to lower the dowel. In fact, it goes up.
- Egg toss: each team is given 25 straws, 20 cotton balls, a 5' piece of tape and an egg (unboiled). The mission is to build a crate/ship/container so they can drop their egg and it doesn't break.
What is interesting to me is the way teams interacted to get the problem solved. As I said, I conducted the helium stick challenge. As teams started, they were astonished that their stick ROSE instead of sunk. In a flash, right on the heels of that recognition, came frustration. We were split up into groups of boys and girls--oddly enough, while both groups expressed frustration, only the boys started yelling at each other. I kid you not, they were really ripping on one another. They quickly moved into the blame game. Each group (all four) needed to be stopped multiple times.
After frustration/blame, the groups moved into 'try harder' mode. I finally would stop each group and point out that trying harder wasn't working - maybe there was a better way. At that point, it was again quite funny - no single group picked an organized way to brainstorm. It was 'herd brainstorming' and they all just started shouting ideas.
Eventually someone 'won' through all the shouting. In one group, it was an adult leader, who started back into try harder. In a group of 12-year old boys, one of the boys got everyone's attention and he literally talked the stick to the ground. You need to understand the magnitude of that feat - you've got eight people all pushing up on a stick (pushing up because they have to keep their fingers on the stick at all times, and by doing so they force the stick up). Somehow this boy talked everyone, step by step, through the process of lowering the stick.
The girls were pretty creative--they caught on quickly that they needed to coordinate, and touch was the best way to do so. One group of older girls interlocked pinky fingers and lowered together. Another group split into two smaller groups on each end, and just put their hands touching, next to one another.
For me the takeaway was:
- If something isn't working, the first response is to try harder. But if it doesn't work, it's not going to work any better if you try harder.
- When something isn't working, teams gravitate toward frustration and even blame. It's so destructive! No one was intentionally pushing the stick up, but they kept yelling at each other about it.
- Someone has to step up and coordinate the discussion. Brainstorm on ideas and then try one of them -- any one of them. There was no single right idea and the teams that just tried something generally succeeded, as long as it was something other than trying harder.
How can this apply to software development, software testing and software quality? Well, software is built by teams - even the smallest unit of engineering is a feature team made of two or more people. Communication is important, and it's critical that 1) no one resorts to blame and 2) each person is allowed to share their point of view. "Writing unit tests just so we can hit a goal of coverage seems to be distracting us from the real goal--our output is actually lower quality right now than it used to be" needs to be answered with "Why do you think that way?" and not "Uh huh - not true. Besides, you're not helping at all with all these bugs you're bothering me with!"
Good communication includes illustrating the current status, as in "Hey wait, everyone seems to be pushing up" and then a group discussion of what's causing that: "We're pushing up because we all want to keep our finger on the stick." Only then can the group move on and start thinking about the solution. So in an engineering organization, that might be "why are we getting a flood of bugs? Wait, testers are off doing something else (building a battleship test automation system) rather than focusing on testing daily builds". Once the situation is recognized, only then can the team react with an appropriate response.
As quality assurance/software testing teams work with and communicate with development counterparts, quality becomes a natural by-product. As teams discuss what practices are producing current results, they can move forward and improve how they approach the challenge of writing quality software. A little communication can move our engineering teams from try harder to work smarter, and output increases in both quantity and quality.