In a previous role as Director of Quality Assurance, our CEO, Gordon Baisley, decided it would be a good idea to pursue an industry award. Here Gordon talks about why he and his team decided to enter for an award, some of the considerations along the way, and some of the benefits that resulted.
Right now, I am the holder of an award. To be specific, my management team and I were the winners of the Testing Management Team of the Year trophy, awarded by TESTA, and it was the first one that my department had ever won. We were, of course, enormously proud to win it but where does its real value lie? In the achievement itself, or in the journey? We certainly found that there were new lessons and skills to learn at almost every stage of the journey, which I talk about below.
The first discussion about going for a QA or Testing industry award came in a management team meeting where we were discussing possible improvements to prioritise in the coming year. Most of the other possibilities we discussed were more directly aimed at improving the way we worked through changes in process, templates or work practices. This, in itself was, the first consideration.
Although we could identify a long list of potential benefits in going for an award, they were indirect, difficult to quantify and many were dependent on us at least getting on shortlists – if not actually winning. We also had to take into the account the possibility that failure might come with negative consequences, as opposed to benefits.
The main benefit we discussed was around gaining credibility internally through an external validation of our approach. We felt this would increase the wider company’s confidence in the competence and thinking behind our proposals, and boost the chances of them being met positively.
Other benefits we discussed included: getting ideas and inputs from hearing what others were doing; recognising good work within the team and increasing our self-confidence; promoting ourselves to potential recruits within the industry; and contributing to the company’s wider marketing effort to assure potential customers of our competence.
But for all the potential benefits, we weren’t quite ready to prioritise the pursuit of an award within our “to-do” list. It was difficult to justify time spent on an award over the effort of improving every day processes or templates where we could more readily quantify the benefit. In the end we went ahead because I committed to lead it, I felt I could make a submission with minimal effort, with little effort from others, and with snatches of time and a little investment out of hours or over lunch. It did really need someone, whether me or someone else, to make a personal commitment and, rather than being able to present a proven business case, the decision to do so would be based on faith in it being beneficial
Having decided to compete for an award, the next consideration was which one? There are a number out there and we needed to work out which was the best fit for us. We wanted to find one that: was practical and deliver-focused rather than academic (to benchmark us on how well we did our day job); was well supported with lots of other large companies and teams we could learn from; had timings that worked for us (we weren’t going to be ready to submit the following week); and was independent – not run by, say, a large services company.
We found TESTA, The European Software Testing Awards to be the right one for us. TESTA had been very successful at attracting interest from across the industry, spanning large numbers of service companies and businesses. They had an excellent judging panel made up of many Heads of Test from various industries, and their timelines and submission process were distant enough for us to have time to submit, but close enough to spur us into action.
I quickly found that entry incurred a small charge. It really was minimal, but nevertheless, it would have needed a number of conversations internally to make the spend particularly as it was our idea to enter, not us following a wider company suggestion. Until then, IT and other supporting functions hadn’t pursued awards, it was always our business units based upon the company’s overall business offerings. While we knew the business would have no objections if we managed to pursue an award under our own steam, gaining agreement to even small unplanned spend when the business case wasn’t definite would have been difficult in all likelihood. I spoke to some of our suppliers to see if they engaged in TESTA and whether they saw sufficient value in what we were doing to nominate us. The result was extremely positive. The team’s three main suppliers were each happy to nominate us, with one coming to me to propose us before I’d had a chance to raise the subject. As a result, we were put forward in four categories.
The template for submission was 4 pages long, two pages for written content and two for stats, graphs or images. Each category provided a list of criteria against which nominations would be marked. There were different approaches for different categories. In one category, the suppliers’ marketing team put together the submission after a call with me, for two categories I wrote the submission, and for the last one, one of the Heads of QA in the team wrote the submission as it specifically focused on the approach taken in the large project in his area.
Wordsmithing an award nomination isn’t something myself or the management team were used to doing, and it was here we started to reach out for advice. In doing so, we began to give visibility to what we were doing and to gain some of the benefits we hoped for. I engaged with our marketing team to ask them to review and help us make sure we spoke with the company voice. As well as valuable input and corrections, the team became interested in a potential good news story. They started talking to us about other ways we could promote our good work, including the company’s own best practice white papers. They also began mentioning us when working with other internal units, or when discussing what they were doing with IT, acting as a cheerleader.
For two of the nominations which reflected the overall team, we shared the draft nominations with the full team and asked them for their input. This was important as the team needed to believe in our submission. Neither myself or the management could see any benefit in writing a submission that saw our work through rose tinted spectacles or presented an environment the team didn’t recognise. On the flip side, by inviting the team to read and change or add to the submissions, we received additional inputs we’d not captured before. It also allowed us to take a moment to reflect with the whole team on the good work we were delivering and improvements we’d made – something you don’t always stop to do in the continuity of delivery.
The process kick-started a positive cycle. The team started to acknowledge that we were doing some really exciting things, that it was a good place to learn and develop and that we were passionate about doing things well. In turn, this parked in our heads positive stories to share, encouraged pride, good feeling, and spread good practices more widely through the team. Externally too, we were getting ourselves talked about in our suppliers’ offices with regard to good practice, and doing good work. This then made it easier for us to attract their best employees to engage with our account, mobilize support for us and promote us verbally with their senior management and other customers. We had become an aspirational customer to work with.
The allocation of awards happened in two stages. Initially the nominations for each category were thinned down to finalists in each category, with the final winners announced at an awards dinner. We were successful in getting to two finals. This was something we could celebrate in itself and, with support from internal communications, we published an intranet article that shared our achievement with the whole company. The other finalists in our category were some really large financial and multinational service companies, much bigger in scale than us, and the article was well read and marked (intranet articles could be marked on level of interest). This helped mean that budget for a table at the final was easy to find and our CIO was keen to join us. Externally, marketing tweeted and wrote a LinkedIn update about us reaching the finals.
Attending the awards ceremony brought a raft of new advantages. Many of the senior management team were able to attend the ceremony and heard what it had taken others to win each category. This stimulated us with ideas we could implement ourselves. The sheer scale of the event reminded us all of the size of the industry, encouraging us to look outside for good ideas, and a number of us met up with old colleagues. We learned more about what it takes to write a good nomination: you need to cover the criteria laid out but often the comments about the winner showed that something extra had been added, above and beyond the core criteria and deliveries. We won the Testing Management Team of the Year and one of the team was told by a judge that we were a close second in the other category, Testing Project of the Year – Finance Sector. Getting photographed on stage and going home with the trophy gave us a truly tangible output for the effort we had put in.
The trophy now takes pride of place in the office, providing a constant reminder that we’re doing good work and encouraging pride in the team. The CIO spoke very positively to the whole of IT at the next IT town hall about the achievement. We followed up with a further intranet article, and marketing posted the photo and commentary on the company Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. The LinkedIn post got more likes and comments than any prior company post. While it is still difficult to definitively prove a business case for the efforts involved, we are starting to see some tangible benefits. By winning the trophy, the department gives the company a USP that sets it apart from competitors.
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