5 Ways Testers Can Mitigate Practical Risks in an Agile Team

Testers who analyze quality in every aspect of the team’s deliverables also have a responsibility to mitigate risks and practical issues that are bound to come up, and help the team succeed in their product as well as at being agile. Here are five such issues that testers can help the team alleviate or avoid.

Let’s say an agile team has a user story to develop a webpage in a sprint. The product manager mentions only the mandatory fields of the webpage in the story's description while scoping it in the sprint. The developer works on the story for a couple of days and adds the listed fields on the page, but because he going on leave for a few days, he only provides the basic form fields without any input validations or error messages on the page.

Once back from his vacation, he checks in the code and shares it for testing a day before the sprint ends. The tester tests it for a day and raises some minor severity issues. In the final sprint demo, the product manager points out that a number of fields are missing on the webpage. Because testing is not complete yet, the story is tagged as a spill-over item to the next sprint. Few UI changes are added in the next sprint's scope, along with the pending validations and error messages.

What do you think went wrong in this story?

Agile is all about controlling and minimizing the typical risks of conventional software development techniques. When working with agile, we have the flexibility to control our direction and steer our path based on unforeseen and unplanned changes and events.

But it is the same flexibility and dynamic nature that makes agile prone to many risks during the project.

These risks are the practical issues that any agile team is bound to face eventually and that, if not handled quickly, may lead to failure of the sprint or the agile process as a whole. Testers who analyze quality in every aspect of the team’s deliverables also have a responsibility to mitigate these risks and help the team succeed in their product as well as at being agile.

Here are five such issues that testers can help the team alleviate or avoid.

Risk 1: Ambiguous User Stories

Agile assumes that each user story is a unit of work to be achieved in a sprint. The user story needs to be granular enough and have all relevant details and context when scoped. But because agile also recognizes changing requirements as likely, this gets used as an excuse to not list the requirements for each user story or give details early on. This leads to ambiguous requirements, often resulting in low-quality outcomes and rework on the feature.

The actual aim of agile is to work on a feature based on the best knowledge of its requirements at the given time. The sprint format in the Scrum process leaves scope to work on a feature again if enhancement is needed. But that is based on collecting all available information for one story and only then scoping it in a sprint. If that is not ready yet, the story should not be scoped in the current sprint.

Testers in an agile team have the responsibility of reviewing user stories when they are being planned for the sprint and requesting clarification from the product management. Similarly, developers can raise questions about technical and design details they feel are missing and get them defined during planning sessions. Based on these details, testers will create their test scenarios around that user story, and developers will create their implementation design and keep asking more questions if needed over the next few days of the sprint.

In the example at the beginning, the tester could have raised the concern that the user story did not have complete details for the webpage to be developed while scoping it in the sprint. The developer should have asked about relevant validations and error messages needed, as well as some broad layout details to work with.

Risk 2: Not Delivering the Highest Business Value

When a sprint is in progress, developers may dig into their assigned stories and, in trying to get the more complicated things done, digress from the priority of each story. As testers, we constantly need to question the delivery of the most valuable features in the sprint so that we are sure to test and deliver them as early as possible.

During the sprint planning discussion, we must assign business priorities to each story being scoped in. The sequence in which the stories will be delivered will depend on that.

Testers may also raise concerns when more time will be needed to test a feature, and request for it to be delivered early so that the testing can be completed well within the sprint deadline.

At all times we must assume that only the stories that are done from both development and testing perspectives are the ones that are designated as delivered in the sprint final build.

In the example, the developer could have shown the developed page to the product manager and asked for feedback during the sprint to avoid multiple iterations. The tester should have asked for a buddy build for the story before the developer left for vacation to provide more testing time and get maximum issues within the sprint. This would have avoided the task needing to spill over to the next sprint.

Risk 3: Quality Concerns

During the sprint testing cycles, all issues found pertaining to a feature must be tagged with the relevant user story. This can be done easily by linking the issues together in the issue-tracking tool being used.

The testing team must decide on a tolerance threshold for the number of issues for each user story based on their severity, beyond which they would raise a quality concern against that story. Testers should then request these issues to be fixed before any further development is done on that story. This helps immensely in avoiding delivery of half-baked features with too many known issues yet to be fixed at the end of the sprint. This way, at the end of the sprint, all user stories are at a minimum quality benchmark with no obvious or critical issues. Of course, improvements and enhancements are always welcome and may be taken in further sprints.

In the example story,the tester should have raised maximum issues against the user story within the sprint and brought them to the product manager’s attention, along with missing or undelivered functionalities.

Risk 4: Resource and Time Conflicts

When working in a sprint format, the process is bound to be very fast-paced, with each team member being relied on heavily for the assigned user stories.

There may be parallel tracks or other activities, like performance improvements, code refactoring, white box tests, or documentation and reviews, that team members may be expected to handle, which, if they go beyond a number of hours per sprint, may hinder the sprint deliverables. It is the team members’ responsibility to bring any such activities to the ScrumMaster's notice as risks during the daily stand-up meeting.

The testing team may raise any planned resource or time conflicts during the sprint planning session itself, so that estimation may account for these time losses. Team members also are expected to bring up any planned vacations or leave during the planning session so that their absence may be accounted for during estimation.

In the example story,the developer’s leave plan should have been taken into account when assigning the user story, and consequently, there could have been a co-owner of the story to take up the additional parts, such as implementing validations and UI improvements to the page while the developer was away.

Risk 5: Failures in Collaboration and Communication

Scrum ceremonies, such as the sprint planning sessions, daily stand-ups, triage meetings, and sprint retrospectives meetings, rely heavily on the team's self-drive and total involvement. Without these factors, the ceremonies become mere formalities, adding little value to the process.

Testers in an agile team must be involved in every phase of the agile development process and raise concern if the team is not performing any of the ceremonies in the correct fashion. Only with full participation and regular communication can we actually achieve success as an agile team.

In the example, the team could have communicated more over the user story, talked to the product manager, and proactively gotten more information, details, and feedback during development. The tester could have initiated more discussions around the requirements and worked closely with the developer to highlight issues instead of waiting for the final build at the end of the sprint.

A tester’s role in an agile team is to provide assistance and support in all areas, so they may need to switch hats frequently, depending on the team's needs. The success of this endeavor, though, also depends on an open, communicative, and receptive environment fostered within the team. Following these basic pointers can make testing a fun and collaborative part of the agile environment and add a lot more value.

User Comments

Tim Thompson's picture

This article hits the nail on the hat. Nice write-up of what is wrong with Agile in reality. Another issue is product owners not committing to acceptance criteria at any point claiming that "we are agile" and "can hit this next iteration"...and then never do.

During the consultant's training sessions Agile sounds great. Agile is to management the panacea that fixes all issues. In fact it is just a tool that fosters failure to plan and cranking up the baseless expectations of delivering features faster. And what happens when time is of the essence? Quality gets cut, bug fixes are postponed, and devs are put on yet another story to cram more half-baked features into a release. Agile often accomplishes only two things: higher stress levels and worse quality.

September 26, 2015 - 2:17pm
Nishi Grover's picture

Thanks a lot @Tim for your kind words. You are right in saying that Agile is becoming just a sought after keyword by management as the "silver bullet" get everything done. But in actual turns out to accomplish less and less each day if the above points and scenarios are not taken into consideration soon enough.

September 28, 2015 - 3:33am
Sanat Sharma's picture

Most of the projects running in Agile have so much loop holes in the execution that the end result is nothing but a stressfull team and customer issues. This article talks a lot about the responsibility of Testers in Agile development. I do agree with the fact that Testers can improve the quality of the product but most of the times, it is Product Managers who has no Release backlog / Product backlog items in their bucket which drives to a complete failure of the product. And for this, the blame goes to Engineering team. My view is that a Product Manager always play a major role in the Agile development as well as in success / failure of the Product line.

Sanat Sharma

September 28, 2015 - 7:05am
Dave Maschek's picture

Thanks for a thoughtful article. I worked on a team that was highly Agile and on other teams that were less Agile. The tester can try to influence the team to be more Agile, but cannot compel others to do it if they are unwilling. What the tester must do in every situation is work with the team to create the best possble software. Good testing technique, hard work, flexibility, open communication and cooperation go a long way.


November 13, 2015 - 3:27pm

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