Why Scrum Team Members Need to Feel Safe to Admit Their Failures
Most agile professionals agree that trust is the key to agile teams' reaching high-performing status. But how is trust created within a team? Typically, trust is an outgrowth of quality communication, and the daily standup is an agile team’s most frequent platform of communication.
It is critically important that all members of the team feel comfortable speaking openly—about failures as well as successes—during the standup. People will only speak when they feel safe, and it is creating this environment that Amr Elssamadisy tackles in a recent article.
Elssamadisy emphasizes the importance of feeling safe to fail, which is the best way to learn, and “learning is the biggest part of software development.” Agile teams that learn increase productivity, but “failure is inherently unsafe and most teams and organizations are not places where we can safely learn from failure.” Agile teams need to embrace a culture where failure is accepted as an opportunity to learn and improve.
It is the responsibility of agile experts (i.e, ScrumMasters, coaches, etc.) to be aware of when the safe environment has been compromised and communication is being suppressed. Elssamadisy provides the following examples to demonstrate where the lack of safety prevents team development:
1. In this example, a group of team members in a meeting are sharing what they are working on, and one developer shares a block that has been difficult. Another developer scoffs at this and says “I can’t believe you’re stuck on that; it would have taken me five minutes.” The team member who shared his feelings, as well as many others, are now emotionally unsafe and will hesitate to share in the future; they might cover up their difficulties and failures. There is little learning and innovation that can arise from this team.
2. In this next example, the developers on a team are working on multiple tasks and doing their best to reduce work-in-progress by focusing on one thing at a time. Meanwhile, their manager is in a hurry and keeps asking them for the status of different tasks. If this were a safe environment, they would have a conversation with their manager describing their situation and then continue on their path. In this case, because the manager perceives a failure regarding the lack of progress on multiple issues, he has put pressure on his team. The team members’ lack of feeling safe with their manager has kept them from performing the most effective actions.
These examples show team interaction in different venues. However, as mentioned before, the standup is the team’s daily opportunity for communication, and it should be the first place to make sure all team members feel safe to fail. As the following video demonstrates, setting team norms is a great way to start creating a safe standup:
Once agile team members feel safe to fail, they can begin to improve. This improvement will lead to the high-performing team you expect when you move to agile. Embracing the learning opportunities provided through failure unlocks the magic sauce that makes agile successful.