Fostering psychological safety in Agile

The agile methodology is an excellent way for organizations to work more efficiently and effectively. Companies’ agile efforts have paid off in terms of long-term growth, better communication, agility, and quality and value. However, it is not without its challenges. For example, half of all transformations fail due to poor planning before starting the process.

The first value of the Agile Manifesto is that it’s about individuals and interactions, not processes or tools. This motto can be challenging to put into practice. Especially when working in teams because many factors outside our control as humans affect how well we work together on a project. Achieving success requires understanding what prevents us from delivering fast and scalable solutions.

The central weight-bearing mechanism of agile processes is not the ScrumScrum or sprint but rather a team member’s psychological safety. Can they push and pull each other’s ideas through an open door without fear of judgment and ridicule? Or will they end up in self-preservation mode when it becomes too tricky because some people don’t want square cubes in circles? The agile team’s success ultimately relies on psychological safety, an environment where they are rewarded for being vulnerable and speaking up.

When safety is high, employees will be more likely to innovate and creatively solve problems. However, when psychological barriers like fear or uncertainty are present in the workplace, there’s less boldness needed for success because team members don’t feel safe enough with their ideas. They become afraid that challenging accepted wisdom might lead them astray.

When giving candid feedback, exploring unconventional ideas and dissenting from the majority becomes a source of punishment for individuals. This behavior makes them stop doing it, which breaks down their dialogic process leading to an ultimate collapse in team dynamics.

Here are four ways to increase psychological safety to foster a collaborative, agile team.

Implement Agile as a culture and not as a process or tool

As anyone who has attempted to implement agile knows, culture is one of the biggest challenges. Too often, agile takes an approach of a story where reaching the end is the ultimate goal. However, cultural transformation is never complete. Instead, it is an ongoing journey.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of small acts of disrespect that may result in the team snapping back to fear-based norms. A team may be working together smoothly, with everyone on the same page, when suddenly someone cuts someone else off in a meeting or refuses to take turns carrying the heavy equipment.

These seemingly innocuous incidents can profoundly affect team morale and performance. Not only do they create an air of tension and mistrust, but they also erode people’s confidence in their ability to work together. When team members feel disrespected, they are more likely to withdraw and focus on personal risk management rather than on working together for the common good.

Detailed behavioral terms of engagement, such as letting people finish their thoughts without interrupting them, can quickly become norms that the team upholds through peer-based accountability. By setting and upholding these standards of behavior, teams can create an environment of mutual respect that is essential for effective collaboration.

Identify and focus on negating adverse behavior and response pairings.

Holding a formal discussion with the team about vulnerable behaviors is vital. By identifying these behaviors early on, you can develop positive response patterns that will help everyone in the long run. Then, document the behavior/response pairings and display them prominently in your meeting rooms or chats. And remember, this is a living document. Revisit it regularly in sprint retrospectives to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Leaders must model the desired behavior to build a solid and effective team. If there is a gap between the behavior being asked of the team and the leader’s behavior, it will erode credibility and make it difficult for the team to progress. Therefore, it is essential that the leader sets the example. S/he should make it clear that everyone on the team is responsible for holding each other accountable. This way, the team can make cumulative progress and achieve their goals.

Set aside time in the sprint retrospective for evaluating and fine-tuning consensus mechanisms

At the end of every sprint, it is crucial to set aside time to review the team’s consensus and dialog process. This review evaluates the quality of interactions and identifies potential threats to openness. In addition, asking questions about inclusion, vulnerable behavior, and reactions can help to identify areas for improvement.

It is also essential to ask about democratic participation and influence. The team can ensure that dialogic quality remains high by making this review a standard part of the plan.

Reserve time at the end of the Scrum for reflecting on difficult questions

Though scrum meetings are typically short and to-the-point, time can be set aside for reflection on occasion. If the team is facing a difficult obstacle, for example, the Scrum Master can pose a question about the issue and ask that the team come to the next meeting prepared to discuss it. This approach allows for more time for team members to think about their options and develop a plan of attack. It also encourages divergent thinking, which is essential for problem-solving.

When conducting a reflection-focused scrum meeting, it is vital to reassure the team that all ideas are welcome. From gut instincts to data-supported options. By creating time for reflection, scrum teams can overcome challenges more effectively and efficiently.

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