Modern Management: Build a Safe Environment

Modern Management: Build a Safe Environment

In the agile community, we talk a lot about psychological safety. That's the safety we need to discuss problems, challenges, or concerns. Here are two examples I've seen recently, one at the team level and one in management.

A Team Example

Cindy, a tester, was convinced the product had a security leak. She talked to another tester, Dan, and explained her concerns. He shrugged and said, “Tom won't like it if you tell the team. He'll be nasty and he won't change anything.”

“Yeah,” Cindy said. “He's the technical lead and he really hates it when we find problems he didn't consider.”

She didn't say anything. Neither did anyone else. No one on the team offered feedback to Tom because they knew what he would say. A month after they released this version, a hacker stole their customer data. The company spent millions restoring data and working to clear its reputation.

A Management Example

Safety matters for managers, too. Aaron, a program manager, was concerned about the product strategy for the program. He told the Product Management VP, Jim, who said, “We don't pay you to think about the product. We pay you to get the product done.”

Aaron explained his reservations to his manager, the CIO. The program continued and shipped. However, they sold fewer than 100 products when they expected thousands of sales.

That wasn't the end:

  • Frustrated, Aaron looked for and found another job two months after they shipped. The hiring costs were about three times Aaron's salary, and it took six months to replace him.
  • The CIO estimated they'd wasted millions and almost a year on that failed effort.

That's a substantial cost—all because the Product Management VP could not admit he didn't know something.

These two examples might look extreme to you, but, in my experience, they are all too common. When we don't have psychological safety to do our best work, we continue. Too often, we create even worse problems.

These two examples show that Tom and Jim—different people in different situations—had trouble with these tenets of psychological safety:

  • Admit when we don't know.
  • Encourage learning from small experiments.
  • Acknowledge when we fail.

I suspect you see these actions in your organization, too. Given that, how can you build a safe environment?

Create Psychological Safety

Here are three possibilities to build a safe environment:

  1. Practice saying: “I don't know,” “I was wrong,” “That wasn't the outcome I expected.” The more often I practice saying words like these, the more comfortable I become.
  2. Decriminalize mistakes by changing your words from “fail fast,” to “learn early.”
  3. As you or the teams create experiments, say something like this, “The best experiments fail, so we know what not to do early. How many experiments can we create and learn from, so we can prune our decision tree?”

Okay, you might want to change the wording for the last one, but I hope you see the idea.

The more leaders say, “I don't know” or “I was wrong,” the more they permit other people to say those words. If Tom, the technical lead, could admit he was wrong, could the team have averted the security leak? I think so. And if Jim, the product VP, could have admitted he didn't know? They might have built more feedback loops into the product development.

Psychological safety is not a guarantee you will succeed all the time. However, a lack of safety often creates many more costly problems.

(Note: We can't take physical safety for granted, either. But we tend to be more aware of physical safety and our choices.)

These statements aren't enough to change your culture, especially if your organization rewards more certainty. (See Three Tips to Move from Certainty to Openness.) However, they are a start.

Can you find the courage to start with psychological safety? I hope so. Much of this is from Practical Ways to Lead and Serve—Manage Others. I'll have ideas for changing your culture after I write about all the principles in the Modern Management Made Easy books.

Learn with Johanna

I'm about to organize the Q4 dates for the writing workshop and the other workshops I have planned for late this year and next year. I hope to announce more of them in future newsletters. However, I have taken vacation time (it was great!), and I plan for more. We will see.

I have a favor to ask you. If you have read any of the Modern Management Made Easy books, can you do me a favor and write a review? Reviews help other readers find the books. If you're not sure how to write a review, email me, and I can support you in your review. Thank you.

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Till next time,


© 2021 Johanna Rothman

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