Leadership at all levels

November 2017

Meeting at whiteboardLetitia Fearon and Seb Rose explain behaviour driven development (BDD) and how it can help to create leadership at all levels of an organisation.

Not everybody has to be a leader - although with the right approach, most people can be helped to see their leadership potential, and how it will transform the quality of their work. One such approach is called behaviour driven development (BDD), which outlines the responsibilities for collecting requirements and ensuring quality standards are shared across the team during the systems development life cycle.

There is a big difference between managing and leading people. Managers are not always leaders, even when they oversee a team. Leaders may not have an official role, but they have ideas, maybe even a vision, and because they know how to communicate them, other people will follow.

Leaders have passion. If they believe in something, want to be part of it, they show their enthusiasm and this enthuses others. Their example helps teams to align to a vision and makes sure they work together towards a set goal. The energy of such leaders can not only unite teams, but will also increase productivity.

Companies are adopting a more collaborative approach to delivering projects; this has an impact on how people work. For both managers and employees, this is a huge opportunity: they can challenge old ways of working and ask how to do things differently - and better.

This is a huge mind shift; people suddenly realise that they can take ownership for what they are delivering. This is a fundamental change in traditional job roles; it has the potential of turning anyone into a leader, regardless of grade or position.

How does BDD work?

At the heart of BDD is a strict ‘no jargon’ policy. All documents and all communication need to use plain language that everybody in the team can understand. It must not take a degree or specialisation to understand a requirement.

This ensures that both the delivery team and the subject matter experts are fully aligned. There must be no misunderstanding what the project is about, and what is needed to deliver it. The best way of making BDD work is to create and use examples to drive the development process.

Behaviour driven development is typically used in agile software projects; to discover requirements, the team discusses user stories throughout the project. Defining and prioritising good user stories can be an exciting challenge in itself. There are many good methods you can use, like impact mapping or story mapping, but these are not directly related to BDD.

BDD starts when the details of the user stories are discussed by the team for the first time. This is normally just before a user story will be worked on by the team.

In a project following the BDD approach, the team collects and discusses examples while working with a user story. Examples are used to explore and illustrate the expected behaviour of the business domain. User stories are typically broken down into acceptance criteria or business rules, but these are often subject to misunderstandings. Focusing on examples makes the intention of these rules clear. Examples are concrete usage descriptions of how the application or one of its features should behave.

Examples can take various forms. They can appear as input-output data pairs, sketches of the user interface, bulleted lists of different steps of a user workflow or even an Excel workbook illustrating a calculation or a report. The better the examples you collect during the specification workshop, the easier it will be to deliver the project successfully using BDD.

Once the user story is prepared and discussed with the team, the development phase starts. Using BDD, the teams implement the expected behaviour that was illustrated by the examples. In order to use the examples to drive the development, they are formulated into scenarios.

The scenarios can be considered part of the code base of the application, because they are used to verify a specific function of the application.

These BDD scenarios provide useful feedback for the entire team, including the business representatives, so that everybody knows that the delivery is on track.

  • They give feedback whether the developers have correctly implemented the scenarios;
  • They provide feedback about the solution to and from the product owner and end-users;
  • They describe the implemented behaviour, to help business analysts understand existing functionality;
  • They provide a signal for the manual testers so they know when a feature is ready for testing;
  • They act as a safety net for the developers, by identifying any unwanted side effects of changes;
  • They will be part of the detailed documentation of the application, for use by the support team;
  • And, finally, they define a domain language that is understood by everyone.

How does the BDD approach allow team members to become leaders?

The collaborative approach of BDD ensures that the team has full ownership of the project and its delivery. To put it differently: It is in the teams’ best interest that the user stories contain enough information to implement them and make sure that the quality is high.

There is no longer just one person driving forward the project; the team can feed back on the best way to meet the requirements. In fact, the team can now suggest de-scoping parts of the requirements that are not financially viable. This approach allows everyone to have a voice, to gain clarity on the requirements and to take ownership so that the team is delivering the best product possible for the end-users.

Why do we want leaders at all levels?

It is not just millennials who want a new way of working. Expectations of what work should be are changing. Employees expect more from their jobs; they want to see a career path, a progression - and it’s not only about their ‘grade’ or title, but whether their job empowers them. The top down approach of traditional management is on the way out.

Instead, corporate success is now rooted in creating an environment that encourages and accepts that employees have their own ideas of how to organise their work, how to ensure end users are best served, to break through corporate silos and find creative solutions for tricky problems.

This is a fundamental change in corporate culture. Managers need to let go, and need to accept that leadership can be found at any level, for any task. The job description does not have to be decreed centrally. The change initiative does not have to come from ‘management’, but from those on the ground. This approach will not only save time and/or money. It also gives employees a feeling of ownership; they have an emotional investment in a good outcome, and a closer affinity with the goals of the company. At a time when the war for talent is ever more intensifying, this is an invaluable outcome.

How can employees move from task doers to leaders?

Changing corporate culture so fundamentally cannot happen by decree. A top down approach will not make everyone suddenly feel empowered. It takes time until people feel comfortable with such new ways of working - and that’s true for both managers and staff. Sometimes it is better to start with where you are, review the landscape, identify the biggest pain points, and slowly begin to make changes.

But the stakes are high. Having leaders at every level really changes the playing field. It can make or break companies. It’s a fundamental shift that will transform people’s attitudes towards their jobs; the knowledge that they can shape the output and improve what is being delivered will naturally boost their loyalty and engagement. Happy workers are more productive workers.

Still, managers and leaders also must understand that some people will be reluctant to make this shift. Not everybody will naturally embrace the chance to become a leader.

Companies need leaders

Technology is now advancing so quickly that companies need to be extremely flexible and agile to stay at the top of their game. That can only happen if they use the deep knowledge and experience of all their employees to deliver on their corporate vision. Employees are any company’s best resource when it comes to taking stock and developing better, more streamlined processes. Companies that want to succeed will tell their managers to let go and empower staff to lead.

Image: iStock.com/ipopba

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    David Kay wrote on 17th Nov 2017

    I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions of this article. The adoption of some of the techniques referenced don't require an empowered leadership style. It also assumes a particular type of professional environment which, in my experience, is not universally applicable.
    Just as in other areas, getting the best from your team is not just about techniques and processes. There is a lot more to it.

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