Sunday, November 7, 2010

Planning and execution problem solved

I like doings my testing tasks really well. In fact, I prefer not starting a task to doing it in a sloppy way. Now, this created a problem whenever I was working on a project. There were many tasks to perform every day. In the past, it used to take a lot out of me in taking the actions related to my task. First, I used to understand the task and then estimate its priority (to schedule it accordingly). Then, I planned the approach to perform my task and identified each sub-task that required to be done. I performed each sub-task and tracked my progress frequently. After completing each sub-task, I reviewed it. Then, I reviewed the entire original task first with respect to each sub-task and then with respect to the original objectives. Finally, I communicated my task completion to the relevant people.

Why did I end up expending a huge mental and physical effort in performing each task? Other than my desire to really shine at the task, I found that I repeated a lot of planning that I had done in the past on similar tasks. Attempting to excel at my task is welcome. It gives me the satisfaction that I am not doing the task mechanically. However, re-thinking everything is definitely overkill. Not required in a majority of tasks. Definitely not desirable in every iteration of the task.

I needed to solve this problem. That is, I had to balance my wish to do really well with my need for speedy execution. Here is how I created my solution to this problem. First, I identified a couple of non-trivial tasks that I had to repeat. In my case, I selected 1) Review of test cases and 2) Creation of the monthly test results. Later on, I realized that this solution can be applied to any other repeated non-trivial tasks such as 1) Design test cases, 2) Execute test cases and 3) Log bug reports. Second, I made available to myself an ample time slot when I would work on nothing else but this selected task. Third, I started working on the task. But there was an important difference to the prior executions this time. I documented my approach making notes as I went along the task. For example, starting the test cases review, I listed each item that I had to plan e.g.Whether to do a high-level or detailed review or a hybrid review, Sequence in which to review the test cases, Level of detail in my review comments. While actually performing the reviews, I listed each sub-task as I remembered it e.g. Check if each requirement in scope of the test case is covered, Check if each design is covered in the test case, Check if there is an incompleteness in steps or expected results or test data, Check for duplicity within a test case or among two or more test cases.

Finally, I ended up with a nice long list of sub-tasks (with comments) that I needed to perform to do justice to my original task. Some sub-tasks were linked to the understanding of the task, some to the planning, several to the execution and the others to the own review. Now, every time I faced this task, I did not go about it in my earlier way. I got my list out, looked at the list of sub-tasks and started executing them. Whenever I remembered a missing sub-task, I just inserted it in the appropriate place in the list. This practical list was really my own task execution procedure.

How does this help you? If you are like me and want to perform due diligence on your important tasks, your own procedure will help you do just that. You will no longer need to rely on your memory alone. The second benefit is that it will reduce the planning effort required. You will just look at each sub-task in your procedure, decide if it is relevant to the current situation and if so, perform it. The third benefit is that your procedure will keep you focused and on track. If you enhance your procedure with every iteration of your task, you get the fourth benefit, which is improving execution ability. You will get the fifth benefit when you share your procedure with your team members. Your team members will improve their execution ability by benefitting from your procedure. In turn, they are likely to give you feedback that will help you enhance your procedure even more. Your procedure will also be a good means to transfer execution knowledge to new team members.

If you are excited about creating your own procedures in order to excel at tasks, you should take a few pre-cautions:
1. Do not get over-ambitious and try to create procedures for every task that you perform. If you do, your work will slow down to a crawl and you may be overwhelmed quickly.
2. Choose to write the procedures for only regular AND non-trivial tasks. Do not spend hours writing a procedure for a task that you will perform once in six months (and the project situation may be quite different at that time). Do not write a procedure with obvious steps e.g. you know that you have to fill up each relevant field in the bug report form before you submit a bug report.
3. Once you have a procedure ready, do not delete a sub-task even if you find that it is not required in the current task iteration. This sub-task may very well turn out to be important in a subsequent iteration.

If you work with a process-oriented organization, you will find that documented procedures are available for only the major software testing tasks. In other organizations, you will find that you only have high-level industry guidelines and standards to follow. In both cases, you will find your own procedures very helpful. How else do you think high performers are able to produce substantial results in half the time that you take?