Culture clash: managing management relationships

New Thinking 5 August 2013 Mike Talks

Like some strange hybrid of James Dean and Marlon Brandon, testing is one of the more misunderstood children of the software lifecycle. Past WeTest workshops have touched upon the friction that can occur between management expectations and testing realities and it seemed worth spending an entire event exploring the relationships between testing and management.

My experience report on this topic occurred in the UK. One of the toughest relationships I had was with a Project Manager of a project already under considerable duress. There was insufficient space to house testers near the rest of the team or even in the same building.

Simply put, testing struggled to play catch-up with the rest of the project. Many aspects of it followed an Agile-esque model, but not being around, we were never able to find out the many verbal decisions that changed the direction of our product. Under such strain, we were seen as the ‘bad news bunnies’ with each problem we found. “We’d be ok if testers stopped finding bugs” was a common refrain, despite our attempts to explain that we hadn’t put them there. It was a de-motivating and fractious time for all involved.

Then I found out my next assignment was with the same Project Manager. Not encouraging. But what happened next was to be a major breakthrough as we were collocated as testers with the rest of the team. This meant that, across the partition from me, sat both the Lead Business Analyst and the Project Manager. 

I soon realised that my Project Manager was not quite as difficult as on the previous project and had very real pressures on her from her steering committee.

Nevertheless, they had some very strange ideas about testing. They oversaw some flexible models of software delivery – but she looked at testing to deliver using rigid scripts to check requirements which were unavailable. This was because every script they worked on had involved testers using scripts and graphs. So these scripts and graphs seemed more important than actually ‘executing testing’. Likewise, their steering committee liked graphs and percentages because they were easy to understand in some odd ‘double-think’ kind of way – and because everyone believed that when you are 90 percent ‘done’, you’re halfway there. 

To balance this out, I realised that, as much as they had unusual ideas about testing, I had some strange ideas about project management. Just by being in the same environment, I was able to learn a lot from them. I also set myself an objective – to mentor them on the nature of testing as the project progressed.

Somehow we managed to meet in the middle. But the relationship wasn’t an easy one – and at times got very fraught as we seemingly wanted different things.

Whenever we argued, one of my peers would bring in a peace offering the next day, usually something baked, which really annoyed my PM. But it was something I came to respect when she explained, “We’re working towards a delivery. We’re not always going to get on or be best friends. Sometimes you’re going to piss me off and I’m going to piss you off. We just have to work through it”.

It was then I realised that testers and project managers were in a relationship, just like being in a marriage. They were united in some goals, but sometimes we wouldn’t get on and would have differing ideas and goals. Our relationship had to be strong enough to weather such times. It had to be give and take. You try and make the other person happy on the cosmetic things when possible, but hold your ground on the important things. But when you do, you tell them and try to sway them to your thinking. It’s a battle to get yourself understood, but the important thing is to maintain the relationship.

If you stick to your guns and break the relationship by being inflexible, no one wins. The trick is to lure them to your way of thinking. If they have odd ideas, educate them. But listen and make sure it’s not you with the odd ideas. Let them educate you on their problems and try and offer compromises.

Co-location is vital, for all the subtle ways it allows you to be attuned to each other and pick up on each other’s needs. It’s possible to maintain a relationship with your management, just like it’s possible to have a long-distance relationship. But it’s also a lot more challenging and you need to make the effort to have time to catch up – something which came out of the follow-on discussion.

There are no silver bullets, but you need to work on that relationship as you would work on your marriage. The war for harmony with management is much like a battle for hearts and minds. It will be challenging at times, but it’s also worth it in the long run. For me, my ‘best’ and ‘worst’ Project Manager is the same person. The only difference is that we both worked hard to make it work.