Publications SIBE (16-20)

Agile teams and psychological security

Over the past 20 years, the agile movement has gained amazing momentum - there is agile HR, agile project management, agile customer service, agile sales, agile operations, and so on. But about half of the organizations that carry out agile transformations fail in their attempts. If your team has yet to take advantage of the fruits of agile, you need to understand what prevents you from implementing and scaling the agile solutions that you have in mind. Often the reason for failure is precisely in the culture of team interaction. We offer five practical ways to increase psychological security to create a successful agile team.
After evaluating several agile teams and conducting a series of interviews with leading experts in the field of agile, the researchers concluded that the main factor in unsuccessful transitions to agile is neglect of the first value of the Agile Manifesto: "Personalities and interaction are more important than processes and tools." This manifesto was published 23 years ago - the "Manifesto of Agile Software Development", better known as the "Agile Manifesto". In response to the bureaucratic waterfall model of software development with its linear stages and voluminous documentation, engineers have advocated a more flexible approach that can adapt and succeed in a highly dynamic environment.
This simple declaration of values and principles has since spawned a global movement that has gone far beyond software development, gradually expanding and including a wide range of tools, processes and functions under its umbrella.
Agile has fundamentally changed the way we create software. Thousands of organizations can attest that their agile efforts have paid off in terms of speed, quality, value and long-term growth. But not everyone can say that - in fact, about half of the organizations that carry out agile transformations fail in their attempts.
If your team has yet to reap the benefits of agile, you need to understand what prevents you from providing the fast, hassle-free and scalable solutions that you have in mind.
Processes and tools will not replace the culture of human interaction
Agile processes and tools provide support, but the central supporting mechanism of the agile approach is not scrum or sprint. Success is ultimately determined by team interaction - how is intellectual friction (i.e. conflicting ideas) used to perform interdependent work; are team members able to give and take, talk and listen, ask questions and answer, act and react, analyze and solve? Or do they deauthorize each other and end up in self-preservation mode? In fact, the core agile technology is not technical or mechanical. She's cultured. Agile teams ultimately rely on psychological security - an environment of rewarded vulnerability - for a collaborative process of interaction.
High psychological security leads to a ‘result reaction’ when the goal is innovation, while low psychological security causes a ‘fear reaction’ when the goal is survival. When team members stop asking questions, admitting mistakes, exploring ideas, and challenging the status quo, they stop being flexible. How, for example, can a development team quickly create prototypes if it is paralyzed by fear? Or how can the HR team make a fair selection of candidates if they can't calmly point out bias?
When outspoken feedback, the study of non-standard ideas and disagreement with the opinion of the majority become sources of punishable vulnerability, people stop doing it. How do you punish vulnerability? You criticize, embarrass, discourage, silence, shame, intimidate and intimidate. At this point, the process of interaction in the team is disrupted and may eventually collapse.
5 practical ways to increase psychological security to create a successful agile team
1 - Imagine agile as a culture
Soon after the introduction of agile, many organizations return to the standard error and worship technical processes and tools, because cultural aspects seem abstract and difficult to implement. It is easier to switch to screening, sprinting, canning and kaising than to build an agile culture - these processes are tangible and measurable, there are indicators that create the illusion of success and the appearance of large-scale implementation and development of agile.
Start the agile transformation by defining agile as a cultural, not a technical or mechanical transformation. At the same time, be careful and do not approach culture as a workflow. The process is the step-by-step execution of the tasks required to complete the project. When we consider culture as a workflow in the context of agile, we classify it as something that can be completed. Culture cannot be completed.
Remember that there is always a risk that the culture of the team will return to norms based on fear, so focus on individuals and their interaction as the highest priority. Small and seemingly insignificant manifestations of disrespect, rudeness or indifference can push the team to abandon work and manage personal risks. Introduce basic behaviors of psychological safety into the work, such as "let people finish their thoughts without interrupting them", “the manager speaks last and creates space for questions”, etc. Strive to model these behaviors and they will become norms that the team will maintain during interaction
2 - Develop, document and show examples of behavior and safe reactions to them
Hold a meeting with the team to identify vulnerable behaviors and expected reactions to them. Ask the team to give examples of such behaviors - what they find difficult and/or unpleasant to do while working together. Team members are likely to start by identifying common behaviors, such as asking questions, providing feedback, or offering different points of view. Continue until you make a longer and deeper list. Then identify positive response patterns for each behavior. For example, you can call an indication of an error a vulnerable behavior, and then say: "Thank you for pointing it out. What do you think is the reason?" - as a positive reaction to this.
3 - Fix the behavior/reaction pairs and make them public
For example, hang it in the meeting room or send it by mail. If you are holding virtual meetings, post them in the chat. Consider the list a living document and return to it during the sprint retrospective. Create a printed version of the list that team members can carry with them, as well as a digital version that will serve as a hint and guide in virtual meetings.
4 - Сосредоточьтесь на одном поведении во время каждого скрама и практикуйте культурное моделирование - делайте сами, следуйте правилам
Now that you have jointly compiled a list of vulnerable behavior/reaction pairs, select one of them to work out during each sprint. When a team focuses on a specific behavior and response model, it provides a manageable amount of practice and activates shared cultural responsibility.
If there is a gap between the vulnerable behavior/reaction pairs and the leader's own behavior model, this dissonance generates cynicism and undermines trust. But if the leader strives to model behavior and publicly admits mistakes along the way, the team will make synergetic progress. The leader should make it clear that team members have a responsibility to report to each other for performance and encourage vulnerable behaviors.
5 - Evaluate your interaction process during the sprint retrospective
Set aside time during the sprint retrospective - a meeting held at the end of each sprint to analyze what went well and what can be improved - for an official assessment of the quality of the team's dialogue process. Make this review a standard part of the agenda.
Discuss the quality of the team's interaction and identify potential threats to openness. Ask questions such as:
  • Did you feel included in the process? Why or why not?
  • What is the most vulnerable behavior you have committed during this sprint? How did the team react to this?
  • Was there something you didn't say or do because you didn't feel safe?
  • Does the team show a democratic model of participation and influence? Why or why not?
Scrum meetings should be quick, daily coordination meetings where team members review the backlog, identify obstacles, and prioritize tasks. They often pass standing up to be short. Although they are not intended for brainstorming, you can always allocate time and create an atmosphere - make it part of the norm and culture.
For example, if the team is faced with a difficult obstacle, ask a question about this problem and ask the team to come to the next scrum meeting prepared to discuss it. This approach gives team members more time to crystallize their thoughts and encourages them to divergent thinking. Convince the team that you want to hear both intuition and data-backed options.
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If you introduce agile tools and processes into an insecure culture where the vulnerability needed for agile is penalized, you will fail. Agile will remain only a technical process.
If the team is having difficulties in the process of converting to agile, watch it. Evaluate her process and culture of interaction. Are the team members respectful to each other? Can they be honest? Do they ask questions of each other and the leader? If the answers to these questions are negative, and the team members work in isolation and defend their territories, you have something to work on - to create a psychologically safe environment