The Agile Tribe

Agile – in name only?

on March 9, 2011

Authors: The Agile Coaching Community

“We place the highest value in actual implementation and taking action. There are many things one doesn’t understand and therefore, we ask them why don’t you just go ahead and take action; try to do something? You realize how little you know and you face your own failures and you simply can correct those failures and redo it again and at the second trial you realize another mistake or another thing you don’t like so you can redo it once again. So by constant improvement, or, should I say, the improvement based upon action, one can rise to the higher level of practice and knowledge”. – Fujio Cho

One of the key issues for many teams coming to grips with the cultural to an Agile way of working is not really the ‘safe to fail’ issue but the ‘safe to speak up issue’. The root cause of this appears to be a fear of retribution and a fear of being chastised by leaders. Furthermore leaders don’t want to tackle or hear the hairy problems brought up by the team and hence just shut them down quite rudely…sometimes even calling them ‘negative’. Hence they are afraid to speak up or have just reached the stage of not caring any longer and remove themselves from their team sometimes physcially and emotionally. Don’t know which is worse 😉

So what are the next steps? – As ever, getting the leaders to lead (not control) is the heart of the problem. If the management do not feel as if they can safely speak up, they naturally don’t encourage it in their teams. They also believe that individual accountability for failure is important and actively witch-hunt for culpable individuals.

If you fail a number of times you get moved on so there is a cultural habit of keeping your head down.

Changing this attitude will be a big job. In general, in our experience the team managers and project managers are the greatest source of resistance to change. Strong leadership from above, persistent coaching and about a year of pressure is about the minimum to begin to change their work habits.

So what are we doing? The key here in our view is to create a new cultural habit – trying to fix/change an existing habit just strengthens the habit. What we suggest that that we need to reshape this conversation away from ‘safe to fail’ to ‘courage to succeed’. Our intention here is to change the dialogue – taking attention away from ‘failure’ bringing it to ‘success’ – encouraging people to be courageous and speak out quickly on blockers to maximise success.

We’ve even thought of creating a monthly award for the most outspoken person who offers solutions. By stealth this will begin to change the culture without reference to failure. The current failure oriented dialogue is actually holding back change by bringing increased attention on failure and by speaking up it is like having cross-hairs painted on your forehead!

In general – If you get shot down enough times when you speak up most people learn pretty quickly that the easiest way to stay under the radar is to not speak up. ‘Safe to fail’ and ‘safe to speak up’ go hand in hand. If it is a safe to fail environment then people wouldn’t get shot down and there wouldn’t be further hesitation to speak up. Now ‘safe to fail’ obviously goes broader than this – it isn’t just about voicing opinions or ideas, but it should be about recognising that we all learn from past mistakes and as Mr Cho said in our first statement, “the improvement based upon action, one can rise to the higher level of practice and knowledge” .

Let’s finish by sharing a favourite story from one of our colleagues which emphasises the need for ‘true leadership’ in creating a ‘safe to speak’ environment –

“There was this guy who made a mistake that made the company lose a customer and a lot of money. The next day the CEO asks them to come over to his office. When he gets there he is given a new assignment from the CEO, a major sale opportunity involving a LOT of money. Obviously surprised, he feels obliged to bring up that the fact that he had just lost the company an important account by making a mistake and to ask why they would risk giving him an even bigger account? The CEO responded that he and the Board were very well aware that he had made a costly mistake, but the reasoning behind offering him this new opportunity was that they reckoned he had learned something from that mistake and most likely the company would reap the fruits of his learning.

Of course the best way to create a ‘safe to fail’ environment is to admit your own mistakes as a leader by creating a a ‘safe to speak’ culture and to learn from these mistakes and continuously improve. What do you think?

About the Authors: The Agile Coaching Community are drawn from a number of organisations and experiences. They openly share their learnings to show that “you are not alone” and everyone has something to learn.

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One response to “Agile – in name only?

  1. Susan says:

    Congratulations. I really like the idea of creating a new cultural habit and getting rid of the failure oriented dialogue. I just wondered what you would recommend though to get leadership on board because as you point out this starts at the top.

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