We all want to be transparent and open on our teams – don’t we? Well, at least we want the benefits that come along with it such as:
- not being surprised at the end of a long project that we are off-course,
- ability to recognize change early in order to respond to it,
- a way to build trust in what we are doing,
- a mechanism for estimation
- and many more….
However, achieving transparency and openness are more difficult than they might seem to start off with. One of the primary reasons, is that if you are transparent and open about the work you do, the agreements you make, and the results (or lack thereof) you achieve, you also open yourself up to publicly failing. And that public failure is extremely painful for most of us.
If you are a coder, can you remember the first time you ever had to pair-program? If you are a product owner, do you remember a time when you had the team working on the wrong thing and was questioned about it? For the rest of us out there, can you remember the last time you had someone review your less-than-perfect work?
For most of us – it is uncomfortable having someone review our work and see our mistakes. But that is what we are asking of people in the agile world: to pair-program, to build in iterations, to meet the definition of done, to estimate and openly miss those estimates. And not only that, we are saying that people should do more of it, fail more often so that those failures are smaller, and confront those failures and learn from them. That’s a TALL order for anyone.
(Unfortunately?), transparency and openness are absolutely necessary for sustained high-performance. And being able to fail quickly and learn from our mistakes is a hallmark of great teams. Every single team that I have witnessed achieved hyper-productivity has achieved this state has found a way to be comfortable with failure and leverage it for learning and success.
So, how do you get past that discomfort, pain, and fear? Well, in many ways you don’t, it will always be there for many of us, however we can make it more palatable and increase the chances of truly achieving and sustaining the benefits by making things safe.
In many ways, we feel a risk of injury, danger, or loss when our mistakes are made public. Are we going to be blamed if our mistakes are visible? Will it affect our review at the end of the year? Will someone roll their eyes and say that they can do it much better? Will we be humiliated or will we lose standing on the team? These are things that exist in many of our lives at work. And when they do, we feel unsafe. And when we feel unsafe, we will shut down and shut down transparency and openness along with it.
So what can we do about this? Well, we need to make things safe. How do we make things safe? As always I don’t have a recipe independent of context, however, here are some effective tactics:
- Be reflective. When there is an issue or problem ask yourself how you are part of the problem. Listen – really listen. When people feel listened to and acknowledged, they feel valued and they feel more safe – even if they end up being wrong.
- Respect people. No matter what you say, or what you do, your opinion of the people you are working with seeps out; sometimes through body language and sometimes through the tone of voice and other means. You can’t fake respect and everyone can sense it. So, if you want to create safety, you genuinely have to respect others and see them as equals. (Anatomy of Peace is a great book on the subject.)
- One thing my friend Steve Peha does when he is facing a problem with someone else, he addresses himself and his perception of what’s happening and his reactions to the issue at hand instead of (as most of us do) pointing the finger at the other person and telling him/her how they have goofed and upset us. Christopher Avery’s work on Responsibility Redefined is spot on here.
- Trust people. You don’t have to be nieve about it, but start with trust. You can always re-evaluate if you’ve misplaced your trust. Trust in another person shows that you see they have value.
- Focus on the subject – not the people involved – and be ready to be wrong. It’s ok. None of us have it all figured out. So instead of arguing who is right or wrong, focus on the work; the subject – instead of yourself or the other person.
Looking back on this list, it feels woefully inadequate for such an important subject. But it is what I have today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have better answers.