Why there is no Agile team without psychological safety

psychological safety

To know why there is no agile team without psychological safety, we must first define it. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, psychological safety at work is defined as:

A shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up.

By its very definition you can see that psychological safety is desirable in any workspace!

In the recent years countless organizations are turning to Agile as the holy grail for innovation, for unlocking customer insights and for getting faster in their time-to-market. Chances are you are probably working for one of those organizations. Well, in Agile, work is done collaboratively, ideally in teams, with a lot of feedback. And for that, more than necessary, psychological safety becomes a prerequisite.

What’s in an Agile team

To understand why there is no agile team without psychological safety, let’s first define what are Agile teams.

Agile teams are groups of people that share a mission, a common objective. They are accountable collectively, not individually, and they trust each other. People working together in an open space may or may not be an Agile team. People working remotely in different parts of the world might be an Agile team.

The Agile Manifesto calls for collaboration, motivation, trust, improvement. Almost all Agile frameworks will mention respect, feedback, and courage as important values to adopt when working in agile ways. Calls to action and courage and speaking up become a game of high stakes when people don’t feel safe.

Why Agile is not possible without psychological safety

Agile requires dialogue. Because work is done in small batches and with clear outcomes in mind, individuals and teams need to talk frequently. The famous feedback happens all the time, everywhere. Almost as an overload. Team to team. Team to customers. Teams to stakeholders. Talks about requirements, expectations, dates, non-negotiable aspects. A lot of productive disagreement needs to take place.

In Agile processes and tools are not that important. It’s the ever-forgotten value of “people and interactions”. When a tool or a process is helpful, that’s great. But they are less important. The people and what they create together is what truly matters. Meaning, whenever a process stands in the way of greatness, the process can and should be bypassed or modified.

Agile teams make decisions every day. Be it about their products, the way they develop products, and about how they can service customers and partner with other teams. Decision-making implies autonomy and accountability. If you are going to bear the weight of things not working, it’s only fair that you bear the right of decision about how you do things.

In Agile, people collaborate. They are in constant need of asking questions, suggesting, and trying new things every single day. They work together, sometimes on the same piece or machine, and expose their thoughts and specific abilities and quirks to each other. Without psychological safety this is not possible; people feel too vulnerable.

Whenever individuals are afraid to be themselves, they can’t bring their perspectives. When they are afraid to make mistakes, they can’t learn. When they cannot ask the wildest questions and take risks, they are being shut down on innovation. Without disagreement there’s very little improvement. In that space there can be no Agile.

What does a coach do for psychological safety?

It’s all about reframing. In Agile ways of working teams are constantly facing change. And the only thing for sure change will translate into is adaptation. When there is change, things as they were no longer are, so we need to make space for the new. That’s learning.

So, I give you the challenge to coach your teams into learning. And the second challenge is for you to facilitate any interaction you can among them to be geared towards learning. Here are some ideas.

From silence to learning

If you want people to speak up about what is wrong or about what could be better, just asking people what they think is not enough. They might be afraid of the repercussions of their talking. Yet people don’t need anonymity to contribute and learn. In fact, anonymity is a great mark of unsafe spaces.

People are happy to offer their ideas if:

  • They feel heard, so what they said is taken into account in some way.
  • Something is done about what they say, otherwise they can get jaded and stop giving input.

One thing you can do is observe interactions and meetings and create the opportunity for everybody to speak in the way that is the easiest for them: talking, post-it, emails sent after. People “speak” in different ways and creating an environment for that level of listening is key.

Another way to help silence become learning is to have smaller groups discuss ideas before bringing them into a bigger group. That helps refine concepts and suggestions enough for people to feel better about speaking up. And even better: give people time to think before a meeting or a work session. They will do whatever they like best to prepare. You know, nobody likes to be put on the spot with a vague idea; nobody wants to feel unskilled or not knowledgeable enough. Give them an opportunity do draw their thoughts first.

From failure to learning

Teach, coach, and facilitate so that nobody is scared to fail. That is possible when people realize that any result is valuable. There is value in any outcome when you spend a little time learning from it. And consider everything, including learning from what works!

Learning from failure is needed, but if there are only retrospectives or reviews or post-mortems when things go bad, it still carries a connotation of failure as a bad thing.

Think about elevating failure and success to the same level and blurring their lines on learning. Normalize learning time periodically, or after major events, regardless of the results. When it’s a production outage: well, what did we learn from it? When we hit a thousand buyers of a new product well, what did we learn from it?

Making failures and mistakes more bearable is also helpful. I adopted a few times an “environment crash” celebration with my technical teams. Every time someone breaks the build there’s noise and confetti. And a happy rush of at least 2 people together trying to understand what happened and fix it. Nobody goes at it alone. And having the counterpart too: a web page that counts how many days have passed without any build broken.

Finally, address all the learnings collectively, regardless of who took the action, who noticed something, who called something out. We learn from ideas and events, no need to single out individuals.

From conflict to learning

I have always said conflicts are opportunities to learn. Conflict is to be celebrated and conducted towards a productive direction. Disagreement means different perspective. Great! That’s how we learn.

One of the key mindsets for you to support your teams in turning conflict into learning is reminding every single person that nobody needs to win. That all ideas have merit. And that all ideas have faults.

Two awesome gamified approaches work here. Perfection game, which is taking an idea and discussing what is missing to make it 100% awesome, works to elevate merit and bring the ideas to the community. Yes, the idea originated with Janet, but it now belongs to the team. The second game is to destroy the idea. Break it apart. Try and figure out all that is wrong or wouldn’t work with that idea. It normalizes risk and makes for better informed decisions. Again, don’t mention anymore that this is “Allan’s idea”. Give the idea a name, a title, or a number before you start destroying it. Put it on a whiteboard. Let it become totally collective.

There is one approach that can also be transformed into a game to start work sessions, but it also can be used as a mechanism during the work session to help creativity and innovation. It’s the “Yes, and…”. What if every suggestion must be completed without a “but” or a “however”? You have to accept all that came before and add something. It’s a fantastic challenge that will transform conversations in every team and group you support.

Wicked questions are also an interesting way to turn the table on seemingly irreconcilable ideas. What if the performance needs to increase AND we need to be able to accept 100 thousand more users? What if it has to be done fast AND without defects? This is in the realm of integrative solutions and it suggests that you don’t really have to chose. You can have your cake and eat it too. You just have to be very creative and the key for that is to collaborate.

As you can see, a key element of conflict as learning involves depersonalizing ideas. Bringing them to a neutral terrain and using mechanisms to validate or discard them without hurting individual morale.

How can you help with psychological safety?

You should not wait and hope that organizations will create safe spaces for their people. Yes, the conversations need to occur with management so that everybody can be aligned and live happily. You should probably be the one knocking on some doors and starting those conversations.

But you can start supporting your teams now. And you can ultimately demonstrate these abilities in how you conduct yourself in all the work sessions you take part or facilitate. Don’t miss an opportunity to lead by example.

What are you going to put into practice next to create safe spaces for your Agile teams?

Psychological safety is key in fostering great agile teams and one vehicle for that is Agile Retrospectives.

If you are looking at ways to get more effectiveness, collaboration and true performance out of your agile teams you might want to consider our courses. They are suitable for the ambitious agile leader and for the aspiring ones.

Consider Effective Agile Retrospectives as the launchpad for team excellence, dialogue, and team performance.