After nearly twenty years of working in software, I have come to see some things repeat – the same type of event happens over and over, at many companies.
One of them is what I call the scramble.
It starts with the employees are frantically working to get something done in a very tight timeline. People ignore rules, work late, stop talking to each other, and there is a constant sense of tension, combined with a belief that if we can just get this done, great things will happen.
Exactly what we are scrambling over depends on the company, but you know it when you see it. Here are a few examples:
At a Software Product Company, there is a huge potential customer who will buy, but only if we can add certain key features. Or, perhaps more likely, the customer already bought. And we already promised them the features – by a specific date.
In an Information Technology (IT) organization supporting a not-software company, an executive sponsor is unhappy with our work and will cancel a project unless something changes—fast. In other cases, the IT system is a critical part of a new service that the company has already started selling … but it doesn’t exist yet.
At a Consulting Company, there is an urgent need for a tester (or a group of testers) with very specific skills, on-site at a client – right now. If we can’t line up candidate, location, time and price, we won’t win the contract.
In all of these cases, someone decided that we need to do something, right now, and took some action. That action created a sense of urgency, which led to frenzied activity.
You’ll notice I didn’t say “results”, as the scramble rarely has results. In a few cases, looking back, there are some small wins – we do win this contract or that contract.
It is possible to benefit from the scramble, perhaps even benefit greatly – the people making the Macintosh and Facebook scrambled to great benefit. Yet in the cold light of the morning after the scramble ends, as we scratch our heads and ask “what really happened here? Was it all worth it?”
Most of the time, we realize … we sure didn’t build Facebook. And a million companies that scrambled and failed, we probably haven’t heard about.
It is more likely that we pay a terrible price for it in terms of morale, and turnover, but also in derailing all our existing work. Everything we dropped to work on the scramble is now a week (or two or three) behind. We don’t remember where we were and have to get back into the work.
How much better would it have been if we realized that during the scramble? What if we had not scrambled?
In most cases, we would be in the same condition, without overtime and pain. In many cases, we could even be in a better condition, as the frenzy of the scramble actually hurts team performance. We get the buggy code, and it arrives late.
Leaders Act. Followers Re-Act.
The person that created the scramble, that called everyone into the conference room, explained the problem and made it clear that “now is not the time for chatting”, that we need to “get to work” and “solve this problem” was certainly a leader – as they took an action and that action changed the behaviour of the rest of the group. Perhaps they were misguided; perhaps the scramble was a bad decision – but they acted.
What did you do?
Forget about your title. I don’t care if you were the senior director of a centre of excellence or a janitor. Did you act, defining how you understood the world to work, or did you react, doing what you were told or what was expected of you?
Furthermore, if you did act, did anyone follow you?
The being followed part is the definition of the leader. The action might be a good start.
There are plenty of positive responses to the scramble. That is, there are good things we can do. You might work a little harder, take a slightly shorter lunch, work a little later in the evening – but keep your cool. Don’t throw out good habits, and encourage others to keep theirs. I wouldn’t advise telling the big boss to “stay calm”, as that appears condescending. You might ask them to tell you about it, then ask how you can help. That help is likely to be the communication and coordination that gets thrown out early in a scramble. All of that is likely better than jumping into the same frantic frenzy that is consuming everyone else.
But here I am, telling you what to do. And that’s sort of the point. The test leader has a vision that is compelling and suggests actions to others that inspire them — makes them want to comply with the vision — whether that person is the test intern or the Vice President of Software Engineering.
So think back to the last scramble you experienced. You might be living in one now. Most people in that situation re-act. That’s okay. But challenge yourself – what would have to change you to work on the situation, instead of in it?
How we act in the face of a scramble is one dividing line, one litmus test, for if we acted as a leader or not. Be prepared though, as you might not appreciate the face looking back in the mirror.
After dozens of scrambles over nearly twenty years, most of the time, most people follow. Of course, you can have an excuse. Most people will. They’ll say “That’s not my job”, or “Our situation is more complex”, or “Matt, you don’t understand.” All of it’s true, I’m not doubting it. And you can go back to the articles that define the virtues of a leader, and read about integrity, and courage, and compassion, fairness and creative thinking, and all of those are good things to work on.
But after reading this, in the back of your mind, I hope you hear those nagging question: What did I do? What should I be doing now?
Wait – Isn’t that Disobedience?
One of my peer reviewers pointed out that not giving in to the scramble might be an act of “civil disobedience.”
Hold on a minute here.
Nobody said out loud “everybody PANIC!” The very leader who is pushing the scramble, if asked in clear tones “does this mean we should panic?” would say “of course not.” The problem is the leader is suggesting by action and tone that everyone should panic.
In that case, failing to panic is not disobedience. It might be leadership. It can backfire politically. During one scramble a friend of mine kept his wits about him and encouraged others to do so, and got a reprimand for his attitude. Reprimand or not, I’d say he was a leader, and I suspect you would too if you were there.
If the scramble happens a great deal, and you lead and get punished for it, well, maybe that isn’t the department for you. You and realize that and take action (act) or hide for it (re-act), that’s up to you. This issue is about the acting, I think.
The Good News
If you’ve been in the scramble before and followed, that does not mean you “are” a follower. It means you behaved as one at one point. You can change that next time.
And, again, after doing this for more than a little while, I think it’s fair to say that there will be the next time.
I’d like to close with a few words from Rudyard Kipling. I hope you’ll overlook the dated language and read for the point the author is making, about moving from doing what is expected to moving to the beat of your own drum, and, perhaps, along the way, inspiring a few people to follow you.
If that ain’t leadership, then folks, I’m sorry. I don’t know what is.
“If”, Rudyard Kipling (First Published in Rewards and Fairies, 1910)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the
Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!
Disclaimer: This article has been originally published in past editions of Tea-time with Testers. The author’s opinions on the topic(s) may or may not have changed.