Sunday, 22 May 2016

Changing culture through testing transformation

Imagine that you work in a large testing department with an established hierarchy. There are junior, intermediate and senior test analysts. There are junior, intermediate and senior test engineers. There are test leads, test managers and test directors.

Each person has a very clear notion of their place in the team and what their role is. Work flows down the hierarchy. To be seen as successful, in any role, the tasks received by each person must be completed quickly, quietly, correctly and without complaint.

Pretend that this team has been in place within the organisation for a decade. Some of the senior team members have been a part of this group since its inception. Within the social structures there is respect for experience and deep trust among the team.

Can you picture it?

Your role in this situation is to change the way that the team approach testing. You want to transform their process, improve their techniques, encourage critical thinking, foster debate, challenge the team to embrace innovation and new ideas.

What would you do first?

I believe this is a relatively familiar scenario in testing. The catalyst for testing transformation may be a switch in the entire development methodology from waterfall to agile. Or it could be the transformation that happens when shifting from scripted to exploratory testing, or when picking up specification by example, or when learning to use tools to complement our testing, or any number of other things.

Off-shore Transformation

Michele Cross spoke about "Transformation of a QA Department" at the recent Australian Testing Days conference in Melbourne. Her experience report was from a situation similar to that described above, but where the testing team were located off-shore in the Philippines.

Because of the added complexity of an off-shore relationship, Michele's transformation journey began with some research into the cultural context of the Philippines as compared to Australia. Her intent was not to be critical about cultural differences, but instead to allow them to inform her decision making.

Michelle looked at the six cultural dimensions defined by Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist Geert Hofstede. Under this model there were two particular measures that showed a large difference between the Philippines and Australia:

Hofstede Centre Data [ref]
Jamie Beresford [Ref: ReadyOffshore blog] interprets these differences as:

Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. It has to do with the fact that a society’s inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.

Australia scores low on this dimension (36). Within Australian organizations, hierarchy is established for convenience, superiors are always accessible and managers rely on individual employees and teams for their expertise.  Both managers and employees expect to be consulted and information is shared frequently.  At the same time, communication is informal, direct and participative.

The Philippines – At a score of 94, is a hierarchical society. This means that people readily accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organisation is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.

Individualism is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies, people belong to ‘in groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

Australia – with a score of 90 on this dimension, is a highly Individualist culture. This translates into a loosely-knit society where there is an expectation that people look after themselves and their immediate families.  In the business world, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative.  Also, within the exchange-based world of work, hiring and promotion decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

The Philippines – with a score of 32, is considered a collectivistic society. This is manifest in a close long-term commitment to the member ‘group’ – be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount and over-rides most other societal rules and regulations (including your company). The society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group. In collectivist societies offence leads to shame and loss of face, employer/employee relationships are perceived in moral terms (like a family link), hiring and promotion decisions take account of the employee’s in-group, management is the management of groups.


Michele then spoke briefly about how trust is formed in different cultures. The Erin Meyer Harvard Business Review article on cross-cultural communication [Ref: Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da] shows that there is a correlation between high individualism and cognitive trust vs. high collectivism and affective trust.

Slide from Michele Cross at Australian Testing Days

From the HBR article:

Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in someone’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability. This trust comes from the head. In a negotiation it builds through the business interaction: You know your stuff. You are reliable, pleasant, and consistent. You demonstrate that your product or service is of high quality. I trust you. 

Affective trust arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. It comes from the heart. We laugh together, relax together, and see each other on a personal level, so I feel affection or empathy for you. I trust you.

If the way we build trust as an individual differs from the way a team expects to build trust, then there is a barrier to us working together.

On-shore Transformation

It's relatively unlikely that you're involved in an organisation with testers in Australia and the Philippines, so you may be wondering how this is relevant. As I listened to Michele speak about her challenges with an off-shore model, I started to think about the parallels to different cultures within on-shore teams.

Think back to the original picture you formed of the large, hierarchical testing team that you had been asked to transform. Imagine that they, and you, are based in Australia. I speculate that the Hofstede measures of this traditional testing team based in Australia would look similar to that of the country of the Philipines.

I believe that the people who work happily in traditional testing teams have high power distance: they are happy to accept instructions and operate within the sphere of power that the hierarchy grants to them. I believe they have high collectivism: they feel extremely loyal to one another and promotions are made with consideration to relationships and experience. I believe they build affective trust: they are not unconditionally trusting of someone with qualifications but are happy to be lead by those who build genuine personal relationships.

Hearing Michele speak about the culture challenges she has experienced off-shore gave me clarity in some of the challenges I have experienced and observed in testing transformation on-shore, where cultural barriers are less explicit. This new awareness is not supposed to be critical, but it can help to inform my decision making.

Changing Culture

Both myself and Michelle would find it abhorrent to imagine asking a person from the Philippines to "stop being Filipino" or to "be more Australian". Thinking about the cultural measures that Michele presented made me wonder whether this sentiment might be felt beneath the veneer of transformation, despite our intentions.

Remember this?

"Your role in this situation is to change the way that the team approach testing. You want to transform their process, improve their techniques, encourage critical thinking, foster debate, challenge the team to embrace innovation and new ideas."

Consider that objective not just as a way of shaping a testing approach. Think of it as a provocation to the culture of the team. Debate and challenge may be at odds with collectivism. Adoption of innovative ideas is often driven by cognitive rather than affective trust. It may be difficult for a tester to improve their techniques without direction or feedback provided through the existing hierarchical communication channels.

How does considering transformation through this lens change your approach?

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