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Lessons learned in leading Testing CoP

​Nothing beats the pleasure of talking and testing with old friends on a cozy weekend. Even better if it is a long weekend and the weather is awesome (I must tell you I have fallen in love with Spring in Germany). I met Pratik last weekend after quite some time. Apart from working together on Tea-time with Testers, Pratik and I have also worked on setting up and running Testing CoP under TCS-Cisco relationship. Pratik is now setting up Testing CoP for his new team and wanted to brainstorm around things we did in the past. Instead of keeping our notes just with ourselves, I thought I would rather share them in this blog so that others can benefit too.

Before I jump onto the outcome of our brainstorming, I would like to talk a bit about my personal experience with Testing CoP.

After TCS, I took up an opportunity with Barclays Investment Bank (GTC lead by Keith Klain) and there I was privileged to work with awesome testing leaders like Leah Stockley, Kshitij Sathe, Shrini Kulkarni, and Sudhanshu Bodoni. During my tenure at Barclays, I worked as Test Strategy CoP Lead and then as Testing L&D CoP Lead under the Innovo8 program. Apart from that, I was teaching RST full-day workshops and running “Lean Coffee” style testing meetups with an awesome bunch of testers in the organization.

All the above activities that I got to perform have helped me understand testing even better and most importantly, the experience has taught me the skills and lessons for successfully leading CoP. I value those lessons a lot since CoP set-up is generally different from typical project team set-up and each of them requires sort of different skills to lead.

That said, below are some lessons learned we feel could help one working with Testing CoPs. However, I must say that they are based on personal experience and others’ experiences can differ.

1. Start with having a clear goal in mind 

Working with CoPs can be tricky if you do not have a clear goal defined. A big part of it also depends on why your organization or unit wants to start CoPs in the first place. Is the purpose to stimulate communication and collaboration? Is it being done to foster innovation? Is the end goal to enhance productivity and build skill sets? Is it about creating reusable components? Or is it as broad as establishing an intellectual work/testing culture? Also, keep in mind that an organization-wide CoP goal may not clearly tell you what they mean for the individual CoP you are looking after. If you are to lead CoP you must understand the bigger goals and be able to define the goals for your own CoP that are aligned with them. At the same time, keep in mind the dynamic nature of CoPs and be open to a shift in focus as the community evolves. The challenging part is not to let the group get too much dragged away from the original goal but to keep them motivated at the same time. There is a way to address it. Let’s talk about it a bit later.

Indeed it is possible to start from no clear agenda and then letting the CoP evolve. But I personally feel the danger of running into chaos and getting into situations that are difficult to manage with that approach. Of course, you can work with other members of the CoP and come to a common conclusion about the goals for your CoP.  Again, this is not as easy as it may sound. There might be conflicting situations, differences in opinions, disagreements on action items, lack of participation, motivation issues, and whatnot. More on that part later…

2. Know your success criteria 

Another important part is to be able to measure the success or effectiveness of your CoP. One may argue that CoPs are meant to be informal, ever-evolving, and all but it is hard, rather pointless in my opinion to run CoP without any measures for success. Wenger-Trayner in their book on CoP mention that, “It may be difficult to attribute with certainty the activities of a community of practice to a particular outcome. You can, however, build a good case using quantitative and qualitative data to measure different types of value created by the community and trace how members are changing their practice and improving performance as a result.” And I totally agree with it.

As a Testing CoP lead or member, you may want to understand what practices testers are currently following, what are current challenges, and what changes they did from the inception of your CoP. That will tell you what impact your CoP is having and the value it is creating. A classic example from my experience with Barclays’ CoP was that we saw testers adopting Context Driven Testing and RST practices in their work. Switching from the traditional Excel-based format of test case writing to mind maps and ET charters was noteworthy.  With CoP in TCS-Cisco, we noticed more and more testers taking an active part in online testing forums, writing testing blogs, participating in competitions, creating reusable components, and coming up with solutions that were never discussed before. As a matter of fact, we created the “Tea-time with Testers” magazine for the global testing community by taking inspiration from the work we (me and Pratik) did there as CoP leads.

3. Be the change you want to see 

From personal experience, I can say that motivating others and inspiring actions is the key factor for the success of CoPs. Throwing ideas is another thing and proposing ideas with practical experience around those is a different thing. The latter is more important for CoP since “Community of Practice” is essentially about people with practical experience of what they come together for as opposed to “Community of Interest“.

To be able to lead CoP or to be an effective member of it warrants you to have hands-on experience with the solutions you propose or ideas you pitch. The more experience you have the better it is for you to help others. You can not just expect someone to present at a conference write a testing article or implement some new testing practice without you having done it yourself first.

Most importantly, people, in general, don’t like to be told what to do as they have intelligence, experience, and opinions of their own. And that’s quite natural. If you want people to buy your ideas, you better demonstrate to them how you did things, what benefits you gained, and how you solved problems on the way. That way, most of the open-minded people would at least try your suggestions out before turning deaf to your proposals. Remember, it’s also about people, and community and not only about your own personal choices.

4. Be a People Person (and not a person liked by just a few heavy-weight people)

Even though it is of Practice, in the end, it is a Community and it’s about people. As mentioned earlier, a lead of a CoP may often need to deal with conflicting situations that may prevent members from contributing their best. Some of the reasons for these barriers as per (Wasko & Faraj) are egos and personal attacks, large overwhelming CoPs, and time constraints.  I would add petty politics and favoritism to this list

For running a successful and healthy CoP it is important that one connects with people very well, understands their preferences, listens, and values their opinions and rejections alike. The better connected with people you are the more likely you are able to affect their participation in CoP in a positive way. Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps is one key problem CoPs can solve and a ‘people person’ is likely to be well equipped to make it happen for they will know “who knows what” or “who can solve xyz problem” or “who can be the right person to make something happen”. The best thing you can do as a lead is to give the right opportunity to the right person and not get tempted to give it to someone just because you like them more. Be transparent and care for everybody’s contribution, your people with love you.

Sometimes leads also fall into the trap of keeping only heavy-weight people happy and with that pressure they expect other members to support them. This causes more bad than good and is a great recipe for stopping evolution from happening. There is a very good reason why Kipling says, “Walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch”. Listen to the wise men 🙂 

5. Care to connect with the Community outside 

Just knowing about people and practices within organizations is not going to help much if you want your CoP to truly create some difference.

Be it for leading a CoP or becoming its influential member, your connection with the outside community (the global community if possible) is going to empower you like nothing else. Connect with people/communities outside, see how they are solving similar problems, learn from their mistakes, see how they are making something happen, know what is their criteria for success, what resources they are using, and whether can you borrow something from them. Can you make use of their expertise to serve your CoP’s interests? Perhaps you can invite someone from the outside world to conduct a workshop or deliver a guest lecture? There are endless possibilities here….all you need to do is care about your own learning and community connection.

If you know outside people in person then even better but knowing about work done by some expert can also help you make a stronger case for your proposals. Read articles, participate in community forums/chat groups, attend conferences, and join webinars…there are endless possibilities here too. If I need to give examples, my experience with Weekend Testing sessions gave me great insights for running test sessions and introducing new testing concepts. Because of our personal connection, James Bach made some guest appearances over Skype for our teams and local meet-ups, and that inspired testers to a great extent. My voluntary experience with teaching BBST Foundations through AST connected me with several passionate testers worldwide and we still help each other with ideas when needed.

The global testing community is the best community of practitioners I have ever seen and you will never run out of help should you need it, that is assured.

​6. Make it a Bottom-up but also a Top-down thing  

If your intentions are good, your efforts are sincere, and have powerful friends in your organization then there is nothing that can stop you from doing good. Understand what big people sponsoring CoPs want to achieve with it, especially with CoP that you work with. Ask them how you can help them solve their problems together with an awesome bunch of people in your CoP. This would not only help you to align and prioritize the goals for your CoP but also it will help people understand that their contribution (no matter how big or less) matters to the organization. And this motivation is far more powerful in my experience.

On the other hand, try to bring key people to your CoP meet-ups or important events sometimes. A small pat on the back of your group will make miracles happen, I tell you. I still remember some occasions when Keith Klain (who was GTC’s Global Head then) made time from his busy schedule and spent time with our Lean Coffee group. The impact of that interaction lasted for a longer period and it helped us gain better clarity of what was expected from us. Needless to mention such interactions help you crack some hard nuts without having to behave tough on your part. Try not to burn the bridge with people because you are going to have to work with them in the end. Leave such problems for people with that charter to handle. Their attention to your work is enough to solve some tricky conflicts.

These things appear small in nature but I recommend you to try them and you’ll thank me later for this tip.

​7. Don’t make promises you can’t fulfill in your capacity  

It’s hard to motivate people but not entirely impossible. What matters is your ability as a lead to understand what an individual takes motivation from.

In order to keep people engaged and motivated, leads sometimes make promises for tangible returns such as promotions, pay raises, or bonuses. Don’t make such promises unless you can really make such decisions or influence them anyway.  Instead, find out what motivates people by spending more time with them. Extend your engagement with them beyond formal meetings. Build personal connections. Seek people who are motivated by intangible returns like reputation, self-satisfaction, and self-esteem, and networking opportunities aimed at interactions, learning, and sharing. And try to make them visible so that others also take inspiration from them.

8. Identify your own motivation and be true to yourself

On top of this everything, make sure to identify what motivates ‘you’ first. Early access to information sometimes makes people want to do things and their interest/passion usually fades up once they get what they wanted (pay raise, promotion, etc.) or when they realize it’s not going to happen for them.  There is nothing wrong with getting motivated with tangible returns but please also make sure that your passion does not die regardless of the returns you get.

In my opinion, it’s the passion that makes a big difference. Keep doing your work sincerely and good things will happen to you sooner or later.

Well, that’s all I could recreate from the notes of our discussion.

From my experience with leading CoP for over eight years, I can say that one needs to be the jack of all trades and master of many to be successful here. Some of those skills are relatively easy to acquire but none of them can be acquired overnight. Certain things can be learned only through experience and over a period of time.

You need to be passionate and patient at the same time, and that has been my biggest takeaway whilst working with CoPs. I hope you find these tips useful in your adventures around CoPs. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if I can be of any help or would like to discuss this. Good luck!

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