Why Innovative Scrum Teams Need a Safe Space to “Fail”​ and How to Create One

Recently I’ve been looking at why some companies that implement Scrum are so effective at innovating their approach, their products, and their services while many struggle and seem to stress over meaningful change. It got me thinking about the innovator Henry Ford’s assertion that “failure” is an opportunity to begin again, but more intelligently. Likewise, high-performing teams embrace the value of “failing fast.”

For instance, high-performing Scrum teams recognize that, when creating something brand-new, upfront planning will be flawed, so they minimize planning in favor of taking action and responding to results. They don’t wait until the end of a lengthy project to identify “lessons learned,” instead they relentlessly focus on improving from what they learned this sprint, this week, today! Retrospectives power their learning. Small missteps and the knowledge gained from them inform rapid adjustments on the path toward a satisfying solution. The faster teams learn and course-correct, the more long-term benefit they gain by delivering solutions quickly and incrementally to ensure stakeholders’ needs are being met before investing more time or money. In this way, teams increase the probability of real success.

So, if this approach is so effective, why doesn’t every company optimize for scrum teams and why doesn’t every team do it well? Largely because developing a culture that truly accepts “failure” is one of the most challenging aspects of implementing Agile. It’s in our DNA: Human beings don’t like to be wrong. We have an instinct to protect ourselves from criticism and want to look good in front of others. In many corporate cultures, this translates particularly to protecting ourselves from our bosses and other stakeholders. It’s more comfortable for us to measure and reward success, and we’re used to punishing those who “fail.” People don’t often get fired for following the “this is the way it has always been…” principle. As a result, we’re less likely to take risks or innovate processes and more likely to defend the status quo.

Risk-Taking Rarely Happens When We Don’t Feel Safe

How does an organization overcome this challenge to develop a culture that accepts failure and embraces risky innovation? It begins by creating a safe environment in which risk-taking is expected and encouraged — and learning from “failures” is even rewarded.

Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson introduced the concept of “team psychological safety” in 1999, defining it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” And when Google researchers executed a project to identify the top five key dynamics effective teams had in common, psychological safety was by far the most important enabler of success. They found that when given a sense of safety, people are more willing to take risks around teammates, confident no one will embarrass or punish them for making a mistake, asking a question, or proposing a new idea. Safety often leads to greater innovation and higher performance.

I’ve also seen that Scrum teams that feel safe to take risks collaborate more easily. Without a sense of safety, people protect themselves, creative experimentation and innovation rarely happen, and teams don’t move forward as quickly as they could. Organizations will never reap the full benefits Scrum can provide if they can’t find a way to create psychological safety for their teams.

Creating Safety So Scrum Teams Can Thrive

Strong Scrum teams of motivated individuals don’t need a lot of oversight to succeed. They thrive when they have a sense of purpose, clarity about what matters and what doesn’t, an understanding of how their work makes a difference, and the space to self-organize. But without a safe environment in which to take risks, experiment, and fail, teams may deliver, but they won’t be as effective or productive as they could be. What does it take to shift your organizational mindset?

Servant Leadership, Trust, and Empowerment

Scrum is built on the principle of self-organizing teams and the Agile Manifesto advocates for giving teams the environment and support they need and trusting them to get the job done. In our experience, if you provide teams with a clear vision, a sense of purpose, and the tools they require, they will solve problems; if you trust them, they will come through. These are hallmarks of servant leadership, an idea that Robert K. Greenleaf first articulated for modern times in his essay “The Servant as Leader” in 1970. He proposed that the best leaders are servants first, founding what is now called the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership to help people and organizations embrace its concepts.

Servant-leaders see their role as stewards of their teams. They remove barriers, help teams connect with the “why,” and find ways to inspire people. They trust, listen to, and support teams instead of trying to fix or direct them. They provide them with a safe space in which to take risks, often protecting them from people who can put that safety in jeopardy. Teams still need someone to provide a vision and higher-level goals, but servant-leaders don’t dictate how teams should work. They get their “job satisfaction” by reveling in their teams’ successes, much like parents gain joy when their children excel.

Be aware that authentic servant leadership isn’t intuitive for many leaders. Hierarchical organizations haven’t taught them to act this way or rewarded them for doing so. It is, however, a skillset that can be learned through training, coaching, and experience. To begin inspiring a shift, engage a servant-leadership coach from within or outside the company to help. Leaders who can move from a command-and-control management style to one of true servant leadership reap great rewards in the form of loyalty and productivity. This is when real agility benefits are often realized and scrum teams reward that trust and support with increased sense of ownership and willingness to innovate.

Risk-Taking, Learning, and Improving

There is an old anecdote about Tom Watson Jr., former head of IBM: One day, he called a VP into his office to discuss a failed development project that lost IBM $10 million. Expecting to be fired, the VP presented his letter of resignation. The CEO just shook his head and said: “Why would I fire you? I just spent $10 million to educate you.” What IBM realized back then was that when you work on complex systems, success is much rarer than failure, so anything you can learn to improve your outcomes is valuable.

High-performing Agile cultures encourage experimentation and risk-taking and know the word “failure” can be misleading. Mistakes are not failures as long as teams embrace them openly, measure them, feel accountable, and respond to new information in a constructive way. This is what helps them arrive at the best possible solution to a problem. It builds trust and collaboration. And it helps the team improve incrementally over time as they learn. This is what it means to have true agility. The only real failure is to not learn or adjust to new information. According to Henry Ford, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Retrospectives are a key element of this “fail fast, learn faster” philosophy. At regular intervals, teams reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust their behavior accordingly. They talk to everyone with a view: what went right, what went wrong, what should we throw out, and what will we keep for the next iteration? Some companies even reward failure — for example, one of my clients gives trophies to the person or team who made the biggest mistake in a particular time period or on a particular project. The goal is to celebrate people learning and improving in a safe, positive manner.

If your organization’s culture doesn’t support these “fail fast, learn faster,” continuous improvement concepts, start a conversation about how to change it. When this culture is firmly in place and accompanied by strong servant leadership, teams feel safer, and this is where innovation is more likely to happen.

How Safe Do Your Scrum Teams Feel?

Creating real safety for your Scrum teams to take risks can be challenging. Organizational barriers can arise from management style:

For example, when managers talk about failure being acceptable but then reward only those who succeed, people will avoid missteps.

When leaders move team members around based on where particular skills are needed, teams often struggle to bond, inhibiting a sense of safety.

Barriers can also arise from HR policies: Rewards systems based on individual contributions motivate people to look out for themselves, not the team, diminishing the potential for collaboration when the outcomes aren’t clearly aligned with personal success. The need to provide a safe space for experimentation must be embedded in the company’s culture and supported at all levels, from top to bottom.

Psychological safety is a key to a successful Scrum. Maintaining it is an ongoing process as teams learn and grow. To start, find out how safe your teams feel today. Amy Edmondson measures this by asking how strongly team members agree or disagree with a list of statements, like “If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you,” and “It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.” Google provides a downloadable guide for fostering psychological safety on your teams. Benchmark current safety levels, identify gaps, and create plans to encourage shifts in the right direction. Maintain a focus on it over time to keep it from slipping. With attention, you will likely see your Scrum teams fly.

At NeuEon we spend time with leaders, teams, and other stakeholders to observe how they interact, providing feedback and highlighting where their approaches seem to be misaligned with their goals and values. Once we collaborate to address alignment issues, the difference in morale and improvement in productivity is often astounding. There is no silver bullet, but with executive commitment and leadership buy-in, the possibilities seem limitless.

As a Trusted Advisor, NeuEon helps organizations reach their high-performance goals by applying our strategic experience to your situation. To learn more about how we can help develop a strategy for your Agile-skeptical teams or assist with other structural or cultural challenges, contact us today.