This is a transcript of episode 155 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Jeffrey tells us stories about three ways agile teams deal with uncertainty: seeking cover by looking to a single source of truth, or seeking similar cover by following a process, or seeking true psychological safety through conversations. We analyse why the first two often don’t work and why the third is so threatening to adopt.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you had a great story for me and I said, “wait, wait, we’ve got to talk about that on the podcast”. It was all about searching for safety. So tell me, what was your insight about how Agile teams look for safety?

Jeffrey: I’m really happy to talk about this, because for some reason last week, it seemed to just come up again and again. I found myself talking to multiple people over the course of the week about how often the interactions I see on teams are explained by a search for safety. Some of the puzzles that people see and I see this in different situations, but one that comes up is something where there’s been someone who has been telling people what to do. And I used to work at a Start-Up that had someone who did this, the CEO founder. He was very used to driving everything that they did. And at some point he said “I’m going to try this self organisation stuff. I’m going to step back from people and see what they do.” And he told everyone, “OK, you’re in charge now. Come up with what we need to do.” And nothing happened. People weren’t able to get together in a line. And after a week or so, he’s like, “yep, see this self organisation stuff doesn’t work.” I don’t agree with his- he didn’t run a very good experiment.

Squirrel: And I kind of understand why he did that because it made sense to him. I mean, he thought, ‘oh, I’m supposed to do self organisation. That means you, the selves, are going to do the organisation.

Jeffrey: Right, yeah!

Squirrel: He designed the experiment in an unfortunate way, but not a stupid way.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it was naive and it was naive in the way because he was not able to empathise with the rest of the people on the team. The challenge for them is they were suddenly put into a situation of great uncertainty. And it turns out people really dislike uncertainty. They’re very, very deeply troubled by it, especially when you get to these issues around how people relate to one another. You tell them, this group of people, go work out how you are going to work together. That actually is pretty challenging and people strongly prefer to be told what to do. Even if they disagree with it, because it removes the ambiguity, number one. And number two, it makes them safe because if as long as they follow directions, whatever the consequences are, it’s not their fault, “look, I was just doing what I was told.” And it allows people to be psychologically safe and immune from criticism because they don’t need to really believe in what they’re doing.

Jeffrey: They can say, “well, I just do my job. I do what I’m told and therefore I can’t be blamed.” But the founder, he was not someone who needed that kind of safety, over years, he built up himself. Actually, I think he’d always been like this, from what I know, he had been the kind of person who would embrace the opportunities in uncertainty rather than someone who was frightened by them. And he had no empathy for people who had been trained to take orders, who were used to getting direction from other people. He’d never had to really exercise those wrestling with uncertainty muscles.

Squirrel: But you used a phrase there, which we’ve used before, but I don’t think you used it the way we’ve talked about it. You said “it gave them a sense of psychological safety.” I don’t think you mean the term as used by Amy Edmondson, which is a different type of team. That’s a team that has a different level of safety. And this is kind of psychological cover. This is the feeling of being protected.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s that’s a much better term for it. But it’s the motivation and I think it’s really good that you point that out because there’s a difference between true safety in the psychological safety sense where I can say what I think, I can share my thoughts and experiences and I trust, I feel safe that people will believe that I’m committed to the project, that when I’m saying this, that I’m doing it because this is my way of trying to contribute. And they will listen to what I have to say and interpret it through that lens whether or not we agree, we can disagree and that’s fine. We can still have a lot of safety on a team that also has a lot of conflict, a lot of difference of opinion. As long as you’re given the respect of being listened to and heard out, then you can have that. Exactly, this is very different. These are people who don’t want to expose themselves. And I’m often thinking of the term from Chris Argyris really talked about that people go into defensive routines in their thinking when there’s the potential for threat or embarrassment and that that uncertainty is the potential for both. You know, I might have an idea and I’d be threatened. It was a threat, my sense of self if it didn’t work. And even worse, I might be embarrassed because, of course, being embarrassed is the worst possible thing that can happen to a social primate.

Squirrel: So the defensive routine that we just talked about is this idea of relying on a single source of truth, relying on someone, in this case, it was the founder who just tells us this is the way to go. And we think we’ve both seen teams where that person is the product owner, where that person is an executive, where that person might actually even be a customer or a book or something like that, some single source where you go to that and it just tells you this is the way to do it.

Jeffrey: Well, actually, I’m going to make a slight difference here because the book, I usually think is kind of a second case of process, like how to do it, what steps we should be following. The single source of truth is usually like exactly what we should be building. And so there’s kind of a slight difference here, which is someone who tells us, “tell us what we should build and then I’ll build it”. And that’s a little bit different than from the process which people read a book, it’s usually not well we should build what it says in the book, but instead, let’s follow the process in the book.

Feeling Safe vs Having Safety

Listen to this section at 06:26

Squirrel: I was actually thinking of a case where there was a book of regulations, official source of all the regulatory technology that the team was building. And so when they just go look at page 912 and it would say, you know, subparagraph 27 says do this, but now you’re moving on to the second way to seek safety, which we definitely wanted to talk about as well, because I think it came up for you last week also.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Squirrel: You have this single source of truth that might work or it might be read like a business book or you read a book on Agile or you went to a scrum master training or something like that. And then you got the process, which is supposed to lead you to the promised Land of Safety.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. And process was in my mind, again, with several people, one of which being a person who is leaving the team who I’m on and she’s set off. But when we we’ve been working out together for several months and she has been used to being a scrum master and, you know, kind of running the process for the team. And she was very concerned when myself and a couple other sort of people who work inside of TIM joined this project. And we came in with our way of approaching the problem, which is much more conversational, where our vision is like there’s these problems to solve and let’s talk about them, but she wanted to know, well, what’s the process going to be? When’s the stand up? I don’t mean to be unkind, but she just she was used to having very fixed process and she would run the process. And, you know, I think in that process is another sense of safety.

Squirrel: Yeah, it feels good, it’s like “boy, I wonder what I should do next? I should hold the next ceremony. I should hold the refinement”. I had a team that had four stages of refinement. They’d have the small refinement, the big refinement, the really big refinement, and then the final refinement, their stories were really refined. They had a clear process and they knew that it was time for refinement no.3, it was Thursday at twelve o’clock. That was what they were doing. And just like with the single source of truth, there was a Bible to look at, there was a person to consult. There was, in this case, a process to follow, which gave them assurance that at least they weren’t doing the wrong thing. Which is yet again, another type of psychological cover, not safety, because in fact, if the guide is wrong, whether it’s a process or the source of truth, you’re going to have cover for the thing going wrong but it’s still going to go wrong.

Jeffrey: And this is exactly it. This is a way that allows people to have a sort of distance from the outcome because they can say, well, maybe it’s not working, but you can’t blame us because we followed the process exactly.

Squirrel: Yes.

Jeffrey: And so, you know, it’s a different way to be held blameless. And these are kind of complementary ones, because one very often is what to build. The second one is how to build it. And people get very unhappy when you pull the process away from them because you’re removing what they know they can do. And it’s like a third level of seeking safety, which is I think it’s much more to the Amy Edmundson version, which is to truly have psychological safety, to be able to be in an environment with people where you’re sharing a problem. And by the way, this is my working definition of a team. A team is a group of people who share a problem. And you realise you accept the fact that, ‘look, it’s us in the room who are going to have to solve it. We’re the ones confronted with this problem. How do we want to go about it?’ And you negotiate your working agreements, you negotiate how you’re going to approach the problem and you work out together. And then over time you’ll reflect and adapt those working agreements. And there’s just tremendous power in being able to do that. However, in my experience, when we bring that we have working, as we did on this project, to some other people who weren’t used to it, they looked at us, like we were aliens.

Squirrel: And you’re pulling out a cover, You’re taking cover away from them.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And it seems so strange. I thought that they were, my initial reaction was, why are they reacting this way? Haven’t you done Agile before? Isn’t this strange? Then it occurred to me that no, actually, it’s right, we are the aliens. The way we approach this, this is one of the things we will talk about, you know, doing Agile versus being Agile. They were used to doing Agile in the sense that they had a checklist, they had their process. They had their, as you say, their cover, this is the way that we work. And then we came in and were like, “yeah, we don’t care about any of that.”

Jeffrey: “Aren’t you Agile?” We’re like, “yeah, we’re totally Agile.”

Jeffrey: Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re undisciplined, but rather that we approached it in a different way. We definitely approach this as a learning process and we were going to learn how to work with each other. We were going to figure out what strengths and weaknesses, what experiences we each had, and we were going to try to divide up the problem together. But this was something to be negotiated and worked out together. And we didn’t need to worry about the uncertainty of how we’re going to work because we were just “well, let’s just work it out, you know, we’re here now.”

Squirrel: That’s part of what you expect to have happen in that sort of style of working.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. I think that the power of this way of working is what we’re trying to unlock with Agile Conversations, with the conversational dojos, with people developing their skill is the ability to go in and to overcome the kind of defensive routines that Chris Argyris would talk about, the kind of things that prevent people usually from having productive conflict when we can instead go in and have the confidence to build trust and build safety, then I think once you go down this route, you don’t want to come back. I know that some of those people we’ve working now for several months and they now look and say, “yeah, there are some real advantages of the kind of communication style, collaborative development that we’re doing” as opposed to the more process driven elements that they’ve been used to in the past.

Rockets and the Westrum Model

Listen to this section at 12:38

Squirrel: I was reminded in a meeting with a client last week of a fabulous scene from the movie Apollo 13, and you can imagine that the folks at NASA are kind of careful, process driven people. There’s a lot of sources of truth, there’s a lot of books they can look stuff up in and there’s very careful process so that they keep the rockets going to the right place at the right time and they have to launch at a certain moment and so on. But of course, when part of a spaceship blows up and it’s on its way to the moon and you have to get the crew back, you have to operate in a very different way. And there’s this wonderful scene. We’ll link to it in the show notes if I can find an excerpt of it, where the problem they have is that they have to get one of the tubes to connect to another tube and they need to make sure that the oxygen can go the right way, I forgot the details, but the one of them is made by one contractor and the other one is made by a different one. The receptacle is made by different contractor and one is square and one is round. And this person walks into a room on the ground with a whole bunch of NASA employees who are used to operating with cover I’m sure, and dumps a box full of stuff on the table and says this is the material that the astronauts have.

Squirrel: We have to make one of these fit into one of those using this stuff. And some of it is like the books that use they’re literally taking the books and the covers off the books so that they can use that because the books are what they have in the spacecraft that give them the report which no longer apply because the thing is practically exploded and they’re busy trying to literally put a square peg in a round hole and they say, “we have three hours to figure out how we do this.” And somebody says “we never did that before.” And the person says, “that’s the point, this is what we’ve got. Go!” And suddenly they have to operate in this completely different way, which I’m sure was terrifying for a lot of them because there’s no cover, right? In their case, thank heavens, in our situations, usually nobody’s going to die, in their case if they can’t get the square peg in the round hole, those astronauts are going to suffocate. And of course, we all know they succeeded and they succeeded by operating in a I’m sure, in a way that was much more psychologically safe rather than giving them psychological cover.

Jeffrey: When we say psychologically safe, it means because you’re in a safe environment, you can put yourself out there. It sort of reminds me, do you know what one of the most important elements of a car that allows you to drive fast? Which is the breaks.

Jeffrey: It’s having good breaks that allow you to drive faster, it’s the elements that you put in that give you safety also allow speed. And I like this example of Apollo 13 because it also fits to something we’ve talked about before, which is the Ron Westrum model of cultures and the different cultural types and the good one being generative, which is you are focussed on the mission and certainly that Apollo 13 one is example being focussed on the mission. And so I think that idea of the three options we’re giving here, you can be focussed on the person who’s telling you what you’re going to build. You can be focussed on the process, telling you how to build it. Or third, you can be focussed on the actual mission itself.

Squirrel: But the last one is scary because you don’t have cover.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: So you’re seeking psychological safety, but it’s actually terrifying when you’re headed that way.

Jeffrey: That’s right, exactly. I think that it’s worth underlining that, because they say that psychological safety is part of having an environment with trust. And the way you build trust is through being vulnerable. That process of initiating the trust building process, being vulnerable, is scary and being able to get past that is crucial.

Squirrel: There you go. Well, if listeners are encountering this psychological cover, maybe somebody is tearing it away from you or you would like to tear it away from your team and you want to get in touch with us and talk more about that, we like hearing from listeners and we always enjoy it and usually get on the phone with them and have all kinds of interesting interactions that then lead to more podcasts. So get in touch. You can find us at There you’ll also find all kinds of events and things that we’re doing. So I’m doing some workshops. I think Jeffrey is going to join me on some of those. Jeffrey is leading a ton of conversational dojos to practise these techniques. We’re trying to be on a bunch of different podcasts this spring, so all kinds of things are happening, have a look there. And of course, we always like it when you come back next week because we’re out every Wednesday. And if you hit whatever kind of subscribe button you have available, then we’ll come back and talk to you more about troubleshooting Agile.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.