How to Energize Your Test Team


You're waist deep in your third month of late nights, weekends, and shipping stress; you can see and feel your team's energy waning. The goal is in sight but still far off, and you need the very best from everyone to reach the goal. How are you going to motivate and energize your team to reach the finish line? This article explores the major issues test team leaders face: keeping a team motivated and knowing when it needs to be energized.

You're waist deep in your third month of late nights, weekends, and shipping stress; you can see and feel your team's energy waning. The goal is in sight but still far off, and you need the very best from everyone to reach the goal. How are you going to motivate and energize your team to reach the finish line?

I'm sure that every testing team leader can relate to this situation and has struggled with this problem. There are many reasons teams demoralize, so how can you energize your team on tight schedules, even tighter budgets, and in uncertain economic climates? I'd like to share several methods I've used over the years to get the best from the testers I lead.

Leaders are expected to motivate, energize, react, and refocus colleagues when it seems that all hope is lost. This is your time to shine! Be the leader you always envisioned, not in an Orwellian "Big Brother" role, but in an inspirational, Nute Rockne, "Win One for the Gipper!" role.

"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."–Theodore M. Hesburgh

One of your major functions as a test leader is to energize your team, and to accomplish this you must be a Morale Observer. This means to proactively monitor the pulse of your team members' feelings, not only toward their daily tasks, but also on the project and objectives as a whole. Then you must react to their morale with differing levels of action.

What is motivation? This is subjective for every individual, and you must tailor your efforts for each individual. This means each of my team members has distinctive qualities and methodologies. I need to energize and motivate each of them in different ways.

"I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"–Benjamin Disraeli

Motivation also comes from within, and there are times when outside forces cannot counteract an unmotivated employee. It is your responsibility as a leader to not let de-motivation get to this point. Your attitude can be a key contributor to the demoralization of your team. Your actions and reactions to situations will flow through it. If you are incessantly complaining about the long workweek or insisting that meeting the schedule is impossible, your team will reflect your attitude outward. Even if I believe the schedule is unreasonable, I assure team members I believe in their abilities, while behind the scenes I am fighting the schedule battle as well.

"A leader is a dealer in hope." –Napoleon

Lastly, monetary reinforcement, while effective at times, has its place. Rarely do I use money as an incentive to boost performance or to energize my team; instead, I use it to reward the actual results of the effort. I think we all agree that more money is great, but you can bet that no amount of money given will motivate you if you are not having fun and you're not in a challenging environment. None of my tactics are revolutionary or innovative, but they just might help you energize your team when it needs it the most.

In motivating the team, I target three strategic areas: teamwork, recognition, and randomizing responsibilities.

One of the most important morale issues begins with your team meetings. Set the tone of your meetings to be positive and informative as well as fun. Bring donuts, discuss items other than testing, develop your relationship with your team, and help team members bond with one another.

One of the first events I undertake to improve teamwork is what I like to call Team Test. The premise of Team Test is that every member of your team produces a summary of his job. This summary should include what he has been executing, highlight the most exciting defects he found, emphasize any difficult areas to test, discuss his exploratory testing strategy, and perform some testing for the team. The team brainstorms over the issues the individual raises and offers insight or suggestions on how to tackle those issues. The process is repeated for all team members. Split larger teams into smaller groups. To facilitate Team Test, I schedule a daylong meeting so we can perform the work in isolation and keep focused on our goals, which are to have fun as a team while building bonds within the team and improving our procedures. As a surprise for the team, I order lunch for everyone and rent a movie for all to watch. We take two hours for lunch and enjoy ourselves.

The benefits of having a team event like this are great, but first you must set some ground rules to ensure this endeavor is fun for all. The purpose is not to critique but to explore different approaches to testing. Team members will not respond if they believe it is a witch hunt. Second, involving lunch and a movie provides a pleasurable experience that energizes your team and builds excitement for the next meeting. I typically introduce this motivating approach when team members are working weekends and taking time out of their personal lives for the betterment of the project - this is a small reward for such a large sacrifice. A downfall to this approach is that not all people feel energized by the thought of presenting in front of a group of people. Consequently, the best advice is to not make it a mandatory task. Soon, testers who are uncomfortable with showing their work will realize the purpose is to support and will become engaged.

There are many other methods of improving teamwork, which you might already use - consciously, or not. However, these teamwork initiatives should also extend into the organization to promote the importance of testing, which will make your team feel as important as it is. A number of team-developing approaches have been developed from other testing leaders such as: Bug Bashes, Quality Summits, and Usability Clinics. These programs include development, customer support, documentation, and users.

A word of caution: These events must be fully planned before recruiting teams to participate. Clearly identify your goals for the event, identify guidelines, and organize rewards for the participants. I like to use quality-based awards to promote quality in–and outside of the team. Poorly organized events will cause more work, confusion, and distrust in the testing organization, while well-run events will foster trust and encourage participation. Remember that your goal is to motivate your team and organization to reach a quality product release. Other words of caution: Don't over-schedule these events; utilize the data that is mined.

My favorite method of recognizing contributions from the test team is through the Key Defect Recognition program, which simply is listing on a bulletin board or website the key defect each tester found. I give rewards for the bug of the week, most recognitions in a quarter, and most recognitions in a year. This is based not on the quantity of defects logged, but the quality of the defect. Our friends on the development team vote on how much impact each issue had on the quality of the software. After reviewing the top issues based on creativity and complexity shown by the tester, the tester's name is posted on the Key Defect Recognition Board.

Weekly rewards are typically a small item, such as a mug or a cap, along with a trophy that rotates based on the winner. A running total of the winners is updated frequently on the testing status webpage for all to see. At the end of the quarter, I reward the winning tester with a larger reward and so on for the yearly reward. Avoid using this as a negative metric or singling out a key tester repetitively, which could create negative feelings within the team. There are many different ways of rewarding teams; I've heard of testing troll trophies, company recognition at quarterly meetings, or even having someone wear a necklace or hat identifying her as a testing guru. These can be very effective ways to motivate your team. Be creative and tailor your rewards to your company, your team, and the individual, and you will go a long way toward energizing the people.

Randomizing Responsibilities
The last area I monitor is work assignment and randomizing individual tasks. One of the biggest de-motivating, demoralizing factors in testing is what I call Repetitive Test Syndrome (RTS). Let's face it, at times testing can be a repetitive task, and RTS is the result of this repetition. Testers often are asked to test the same instance over and over again for various reasons. I have taken to randomizing each individual's tasks to minimize the RTS effect. This can be challenging, and you must be very familiar with your team members' individual personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. As with most of the energizing techniques I've discussed, implementing this technique involves work.

There are several methods I employ to remove the repetitious tasks the team undertakes. The first method is task shifting, where I try never to have the same person execute the same test case twice in a row. This has two benefits, primarily it addresses RTS and increases your test team's knowledge of the product, increasing the knowledge base. A tertiary benefit is it reduces the negative effect on attrition. I schedule exploratory testing days and ask team members to throw away their documented test plans and perform ad-hoc or exploratory testing. In the same vein, I include time in the testing schedule for each individual to focus on strategy, process, or personal discovery. I disperse these throughout the schedule so that they do not adversely affect our overall goal, and I actually believe that this helps meet the schedule, as it keeps the team refreshed. Allow your group to grow its skill set and be creative, investigate new items and build time into your testing schedules to allow this. This does not require a lot more time in your planning and you may find it improves your team's productivity.

Testing leaders must face problems every day. One of the major issues is knowing how to keep your team motivated and when it needs to be energized. Be proactive and plan for these events, have a strategy in place for dealing with these issues. As you implement these or any ideas, know that you, too, will also be energized.

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results."–General Patton

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.