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Leading Your Testing Team Through a Cultural Shift


Transitioning to a data-driven culture focused on testing and optimization is not easy for many organizations. It represents a significant change in the way strategy is formed, processes are designed, and plans are implemented. And change—in almost all cases—is a challenging and problematic force for organizations.


Managing such change initiatives can be a formidable task; especially with the pressure of knowing that without effective leadership the entire testing program can lose momentum and collapse. Recognizing the difficulty of such organizational transitions, John Kotter set out to define a framework that could guide the process. After analyzing more than 30 years of case studies, Kotter outlined his framework in the book Leading Change. The eight-stage process has helped many organizations create lasting change—and it offers helpful suggestions for those looking to launch or grow a testing and optimization program, too.

1. Establish a sense of urgency

The first step in the process is creating a persuasive sense of urgency powerful enough to drive people from their comfort zones. This could be done through an extensive competitive analysis, a comprehensive assessment of organizational performance, or examining the opportunities of a new approach. Kotter explains that this stage is critical for a successful change and argues 75 percent of management should rally behind an initiative before the process moves forward. This means program managers must work hard to make the case for a testing and optimization program.

Build a sense of urgency with this assessment: The data-driven CMO framework

2. Create a guiding coalition

Behind every successful testing program is a competent team. It’s critical that this team has the authority to create tests that will have an impact, that they effectively manage the process, and are aligned with primary goals of both the group and the organization as a whole. A successful team will also have executive support. While this high-level advocate may not be directly involved in the tactical nuances of testing, he or she will provide essential “cover,” allowing the testing team to experiment, learn, and grow without premature scrutiny.

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3. Develop a vision and strategy

Strategy, in this sense, does not simply describe the rationale behind each test. While individual test strategy is critical to maintaining velocity and achieving wins, a new program also needs a vision for where it’s going. Effective leaders, to quote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey, “start with the end in mind.” In this way, it’s important for those managing new testing programs to create a clear vision of where the program is headed—and have an actionable plan for getting there.

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4. Communicate the change vision

After establishing the strategic vision for a testing program, it’s important to communicate that message widely across an organization. When it comes to testing, however, the primary concern is typically return on investment—whether that investment includes platforms, staff, training or some combination. And demonstrated return is rarely asked for weeks, months, or quarters into the future—executives want to see wins right away. Communicating successes, then, must be a primary concern.

Communicate your vision and success: What’s your gong? Communicating testing successes across organizations

5. Empower broad-based action

Entrenched processes and organizational roadblocks typically slow new initiatives—and testing is no different. Kotter recommends leaders should change systems that undermine the vision, remove obstacles, and encourage risk taking and nontraditional ideas. Short of removing obstacles, leaders of new testing and optimization programs should at least identify potential problems.

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6. Generate short-term wins

With sheltering support of an executive advocate and clear communication that stretches across an organization, new testing programs should be able to publicize their early victories and enjoy some protection while the program builds velocity. Generating short-term wins, however, requires additional consideration. Choosing the best methodology or leveraging analysis to turn losing tests into wins can both help new programs find quick success.

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7. Consolidate gains and produce more change

Kotter argues that, even with incredible momentum, change efforts in middle and late stages are susceptible to regression and dissolution. To fight this backwards trend, he says, leaders must continually expand the scope of the effort, adding new projects, team members, and more. For testing programs, expanding to include new organizational units, KPIs, and data sources is usually part of a natural progression. More problematic, however, are criticisms from those that don’t trust the data or analysis in general. Telling a compelling, rational story through analytics is essential to combat this criticism.

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8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

This final stage is the one in which testing culture truly takes hold—not just within one team focused on optimization, but across the organization. Accomplishing this requires renewed effort across the previous seven steps. By reinforcing the importance of testing, communicating successes, reevaluating and reaffirming the strategic vision, and empowering teammates, program leaders can help to anchor and expand the new orientation testing provides.

Model the traits of successful teams: The key characteristics of successful testing programs

Testing and optimization can present a challenging new worldview, especially for those comfortable with gut-based decision-making. For new programs to be successful, managers must make themselves leaders capable of guiding the team and organization through a period of change.