Psychological Safety and Agile Teams

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Psychological Safety and Agile Teams

building and maintaining psychological safety for your team

Psychological safety enables teams to perform well even in uncertain environments, through being able to make mistakes without fear, innovating by trying new and potentially risky endeavours, and through raising concerns or new ideas as they arise.

Agile is about delivering quickly in uncertain and changing environments, where the needs of the customer or the constraints of delivery can change or are unknown. For example, Agile includes the principle of “Minimum Viable Product”, which means building something that meets the minimum needs of the customer, providing it to them to use, and getting feedback about how to improve it. 

Psychological Safety and Agile complement each other.

So we can see that psychological safety and agile are fundamentally aligned – they are both essential approaches to being comfortable with feedback, change, uncertainty, and even fear. 

The Agile Manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

Individuals and Interactions

The first line of the Agile Manifesto speaks to the importance of valuing empathy and a human approach to software development, and this is one of the core elements of building psychological safety in a team. We cannot value individuals and interactions without psychological safety. 

It is, indeed, only psychological safety that facilitates truly powerful and rewarding interactions, that enable teams to concern themselves less with processes and tools. On a team with low psychological safety, interactions can be perfunctory at best, and at worst, competitive, aggressive, and without speaking truth. It is on teams with low degrees of psychological safety that processes and tools become more important, as they compensate for a lack of quality communication and trust between team members.

Honest, timely and constructive communication is essential to an Agile delivery team. Team members must feel safe to offer constructive advice during a crisis, or when they see errors or defects in a product or process. Team members must also possess the psychological safety to be honest about their own progress or lack thereof, because other team members depend on them and the software they’re delivering. Finally, assuming this is a technical realm, it’s crucial for Agile team members to feel psychologically safe enough to share information and knowledge about systems, software, architecture, and security.

Psychological Safety and Responding to Change

Similarly in respect to the fourth aspect of the Agile manifesto “Responding to change over following a plan“: in order to respond to change, we must allow people to take risks, make mistakes, and raise concerns. For example, If a developer discovers an issue that means the best course of action may be to scrap a feature and start again from scratch, she needs to feel psychologically safe enough to do so. She needs to know that she can raise her concern without fear of rejection, embarrassment or retribution. This is a core tenet of psychological safety.

Without psychological safety present on the team, she may hide her concerns and continue to work on the doomed feature, resulting in a service delivered to the customer that doesn’t meet their needs. With a high degree of safety, she can raise the issue, the team can respond and facilitate change and deliver a feature that delights the customer.

Psychological safety on an agile team means being able to raise concerns about the software and systems that you are building, how you’re building them, or even the ways the team and organisation interacts and functions. It means being able to challenge the status quo, present new ideas, and respond, quickly and safely, to change. 

Agile Ceremonies

Many of the “Agile” ceremonies (although you could argue these are Scrum, but often adopted by Agile teams as good practices), from daily standups to planning poker, and from pair programming to sprint reviews, require a degree of psychological safety in order to be successful. Certainly, without psychological safety, sprint reviews are unlikely to provide as much, if any, benefit compared to a team with high psychological safety. Fortunately, many Agile practices including those listed above not only require psychological safety, but help in creating it too. The best thing to do is start.

Listen to this episode of the Agile Engineering Podcast to hear about psychological safety in Agile software development teams.

Psychological safety is a core component of high-performing Agile teams.

Supercharge your efforts to build psychological safety and high performance in your team by downloading the psychological safety action pack now. Full of workshops, exercises, templates and posters, it’s your chance to accelerate your team.

building and maintaining psychological safety for your team

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