Thursday, June 13, 2013

Re: Is it Safe to Fail?

Amr Elssamadisy (@samadisy) recently blogged, asking Is it Safe to Fail?
I strongly agree with his claim (and I paraphrase here) that the "skill of failing" is an essential factor in a team's ability to learn and improve. 
Interestingly, Amr identifies three categories in which this skill is cultivated: culture, individual human dynamics and agile practices:
  1. Leaders create a culture that rewards small failures and the successes that come after them. They celebrate the successes and failures and lead by example.
  2. Individuals understand that failure is a milestone the road to success. They have experienced it multiple times and are not intimidated by it.
  3. Teams use software development practices that make failure SAFE.
While Amr elaborates on the third category, of practices (such as TDD, TDR/BDD), I want to explore a few options on the first category. What could be the elements that support such a culture? It seems to me that the second category emerges out of the other two over time.

Cultivating a Learning Oriented Culture

How can leaders cultivate a learning oriented culture, one that expects such failures?
Here are a few concepts that with proper teaching, coaching and leading by example, can serve as foundations to such work environments.

Responsibility Process - out of the Blame Game

Christopher Avery (@christopheraver) and others developed the Responsibility Process. In a nutshell (seriously, I can go on for weeks about it), this is a psychological model about how human beings deal with problems. Being aware of it, one can acknowledge the tendency to react out of a blaming mindset, and choose to hold on until a better, more effective, state of mind is reached. The model describes a number of distinct mental states that are normal for humans to have, but might not be ideal to be in when trying to take action. Responsibility is the desired mental state - in which one has learning capacity, resourcefulness, eagerness, energy and courage.
The model is a powerful tool for self awareness and mastery, but better yet - it can be a great way for a team familiar with it to have a shared language to make working agreements that support learning, trust and safety.

Nonviolent Communication

NVC is the brain-child of psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg. It is aimed to show an alternative for the highly judgmental and competitive education most of us had.

During Agile Israel 2013, Bob Marshall explained violence using the acronym FOGS.
Violence is using or triggering one of the following emotions in others, to make them act in a certain way:
  • Fear
  • Obligation
  • Guilt
  • Shame

With this definition in mind, consider that many processes are violent due to their implementation. Why should we care? It might be the wrong way to reach our goals, to meet our needs.
Bob went on to describe NVC as a 4-step process, with a pre-requisite of empathy which is essential for diffusing a conflict situation. Try to understand the other side in an explicit way (or fake it...). The next steps are:

  1. Observation - what are the facts
  2. Feelings "how did it make you feel?" 
  3. Needs - violence originates by needs not met. What needs that are not being met cause those feelings? (or needs that were met, for positive feelings)
  4. Request - "would you be willing to..?"

A First Glance Comparison of the Two

I thought of introducing The Core Protocols as another culture hacking approach, but it suddenly hit me how similar NVC and the Responsibility Process are. I'd like to dwell on it for a moment.

Violence in Rosenberg's world is basically all that the "non-responsible" positions of mind are made to deal with. These are all coping mechanisms against the abundance of violence others emit. But this is poor protection - the aggressive party gets to "win" by triggering Shame or Obligation, forcing someone to action with fear. However, a person reacting out of Responsibility can distinguish between the stimulus (observation) and her own emotional state (feelings) and confront her own wants (needs) before picking a response.
The key difference (based on my very limited knowledge of NVC) is that while Avery's Responsibility is more about one's own state of mind, NVC is about dealing with others while dealing with ones own state of mind and creating an environment that supports the other to reach a Responsible state of mind.

Wait - How does it Relate to Safety?

Assuming the similarities I find between NVC and Responsibility aren't too far off, introducing such concepts (teaching, coaching and continuous practice and demonstration) to any community would raise the levels of trust and safety, and therefore of healthy, effective, honest and open communication. Roughly I'd say Responsibility is a tool for the individual to be more resilient and brave (inherently safer) while NVC is designed to reduce the levels of violence, therefore making it safer.

Thanks, Amr, for raising the topic of safety as an important factor for effective teamwork. It is also an ethical issue - there's little joy at work if you don't feel safe. But if you had to choose between implementing processes and practices that might generate some safety versus changing the culture - what would be more effective and long lasting?

Update: Amr recommended this blog post explaining Tech Safety - I love the concept, though the focus on the word safety might create an impression that it is not about quality, joy and respect for people. It is.


  1. Thanks Guy for the kind words. Something is happening in our field and there is a new thing that we have yet to name that is growing - being given birth.

    * Christopher Avery was the one who got me on this road of human dynamics in 2005 - I am happy to see the reference here.

    * I'm at QCon NY this week and have had great conversations about safety and failure. And a speaking opportunity came up between Dan Mezick and Jim McCarthy's talk (Core Protocols). Safety is core and it may be that Agile is inherently unsafe:

    * I just finished a lengthy conversation with a gentleman here about how his teams did 6 straight weeks of openspace and created something great. Open spaces are SAFE.

    * Finally, check out

    I tell you - something is in the air!

    - Amr

    1. Thank you, Amr, I added a link to the excellent tech-safety blog post.
      Full disclosure: It might be less of a coincidence that I mention Avery - I work for Software AG, where you consulted towards our Lean/Agile transformation a few years ago.
      I agree - I notice similar concepts coming from different directions, and writing about it is a great way to learn of more. Others (In addition to NVC that I mentioned) that surfaced for me were:
      - Temenos (by Siraj Sirajuddin)
      - Thinking Environment (by Nancy Kline)