The Fearless Advantage

by Dan Greenberg

Truly Agile organizations spend their time thinking about the why behind the what. When I pull up an app on my iPhone, I don’t much care what’s happening behind the scenes so long as my personal data isn’t being compromised. I just want the applications I use to do what I expect them to do so that I can get done what I want to get done. Any development process they want to use is fine by me. As the first principle of Agile goes, “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” Why early and why continuous? To learn quickly.

Learning and Feedback

How does a tech company find out if the latest deployment satisfied the customer? By putting it in the customer’s hands and being open to feedback. That means real software on a real device, not a set of PowerPoint slides showing the customer what the product might hypothetically do. Let’s be clear: you take a big risk by letting a real customer play around with an actual product. You risk looking bad. You risk failing. But if you fail, you do it fast and get the chance to quickly adapt to the market’s desires. This helps you ultimately succeed.

Great organizations recognize the need to learn constantly. Turning onto a highway is a good analogy; if you’re going the wrong way, you want to find that out as soon as possible, so there are signs dedicated to that purpose. Learning in product development can start before anything is ever released to the public, with frequent demos to stakeholders and UX research with potential customers early in the lifecycle. For this early feedback to be effective, teams need to feel safe presenting rough ideas to gain straightforward, honest feedback. Psychological safety is essential for that to occur.

Psychological Safety is Essential

Psychological safety has become a new hot topic in corporate journals, management books, and software websites but the real reason companies need it is to enhance performance, regardless of how they work. Without it, we can’t learn—or we learn much more slowly—and we cut ourselves off from a vital competitive edge.

What is psychological safety and how can you enable it? In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson defines safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Edmondson offers her readers a short survey designed to quantitatively measure safety in a team or an organization. This is useful, but in my experience, it requires a certain level of safety to admit to a lack of safety. Psychological safety is one of those “you know it when you see it” qualities, and when it is present, it has real power. Imagine a casual conversation among a group of close friends and compare that to a formal presentation to C-level executives. When your meetings at work feel more like the former, you’re getting there.

How to Foster It

There are a growing number of excellent resources on organizational safety and how to achieve it. I highly recommend Edmondson’s book; it’s a great way to start. Here are some techniques I’ve gathered that have been successful for me and my team:

  • Start a failure wall. Record the biggest swings-and-misses of the week on Post-Its. Write down what was learned in each case and celebrate the accumulated learning on a regular basis with a social event like a pizza party.
  • Outlaw PowerPoint at Sprint Demos. Show off the actual working (or not-working) product. The only exception to this rule is if you work for PowerPoint and are demoing the latest features ☺️
  • Collect one-on-one feedback from team members in confidential closed door sessions. The assurance of confidentiality can help people open up and feel more comfortable sharing thoughts and observations. If you hear something that sounds like valuable information, follow up and ask a) would you be willing to share that with the team? or b) if not, would you like me to share it and pretend it’s coming from me? If they’d rather neither option, respect that request!

As with any element of company culture, we make the culture manifest through our actions. Safety is strongly influenced by how leaders behave. If influencers and decision-makers aren’t modeling the necessary behavior to create a safe environment, all other initiatives can only go so far. That said, there are lots of things you and your team can do to move the needle. Small improvements will earn real dividends. Information drives innovation and psychological safety is the key to rapidly making sense of new data and fostering continual improvement. Let us know what techniques you’re using to gain a Fearless Advantage!