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Psychological Safety and DevOps

Nov 12, 2020 5:00:00 PM By Phil Vuollet

Brian Fox, a management consultant supporting the U.S. government, spoke about the importance of psychological safety when bringing DevOps to bear inside an organization.

Change is hard, and the change involved in implementing DevOps is no different. Let’s start with what psychological safety is and why it matters.

What Is Psychological Safety?

There are two components to psychological safety, which is a culture created in collaboration between leaders and colleagues.

The first component will be familiar to those experienced with DevOps and its maxim to adopt a blameless culture. To achieve psychological safety, you first must make members of your organization confident in the knowledge that they can make mistakes without being punished.

Building on that, the second component is growth. Members of your organization must feel safe to learn new things, to contribute in ways they believe add value, and to challenge the way things are done within the organization without worrying about repercussions.

Why Psychological Safety Is Important

Lean into uncertainty with a vision. Adopt new tools that are innovative. New roads for the existing workforce are unknown territory, which can be both exciting and scary. 

To do all of these things, members of your organization need moral support and room to make mistakes. There are opportunities to innovate. Without the psychological support to move forward, this potential may never be realized.

What Does It Take to Achieve Psychological Safety?

A culture of psychological safety takes leadership. Below are some of the practices suggested by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) you can employ to achieve this desired state:

  1. Collaborate on problems.
  2. Speak person to person.
  3. Be curious without blame.
  4. Seek feedback.

Brian’s own steps, which subsume those suggested by HBR, are as follows:

  1. Deal with uncertainty.
  2. Communicate (and understand) the danger of not trying.
  3. Celebrate small failures (learning opportunities).
  4. Appreciate transparency.
  5. Emphasize learning and facilitate sharing.

Let’s look at these steps in more detail and see why they’re so important.

Deal With Uncertainty

Delivering incremental value reduces the level of uncertainty. In DevOps, trust is built through generating value early and often. A short feedback loop can enhance certainty, especially when everyone is collaborating on the value generation. But what is value generation? 

Value generation might be achieved by building solutions, but it might mean something completely different. It could simply mean learning how to use the tools available in new ways. Or it could mean refining a process to make everyone’s life easier. There are numerous ways to build value besides creating software.

Communicate (and Understand) the Danger of Not Trying

Leaders must clearly state the consequences of not trying. Negative emotions, such as fear of change, can be a blocker to value generation. But a good leader will state both the need to change and the cost of not trying.

To be certain, one of the biggest fears involved in transformation is job loss. Organizations need support in place to retrain existing resources during a big transformation. No one knows the business better than those who are part of the organization, which makes them one of your most valuable assets. Allay their fears by presenting a clear path to their new role.

Celebrate Small Failures

It takes bravery to bring failure and mistakes to light. In some environments, people might not even think of admitting a mistake for fear of blame and possibly job loss. However, mistakes are opportunities to learn, grow, and otherwise improve. 

Mistakes will happen whether we face them or not. It’s better to take them head on without fear.

Instead of placing blame, celebrate small failures. You might even want to reward the growth that follows a mistake under the right conditions. This will reinforce good behaviors. Create an environment where mistakes are seen with curiosity. 

Using the “five whys” is one tactical solution. When something goes wrong, ask why. Then ask why again. Iterate until the root cause is found. But be warned: This is not an exercise in interrogation! It’s about working together to discover and learn.

Appreciate Transparency

Honesty is important at all levels. It’s one thing to celebrate successes, but when the successes are masking a bigger failure, are they really successes? I’m not suggesting we should all take a negative perspective. The idea here is to appreciate transparency and start with the truth. Get reality out in the open and take it from there with a positive attitude. Know that you’ll get to the right place when you’re all working together.

Emphasize Learning and Facilitate Sharing

A culture of sharing knowledge is a huge strength. It can be counterintuitive in individualistic cultures like the U.S. But in Japan, a more collectivist culture, they embraced the lean principle of Kaizen

Kaizen is about coming together to solve problems where the work is done. It’s about workers collaborating to achieve incremental or continuous improvement. This principle has been successful in Toyota production facilities in the U.S. and it’s made headway in the software engineering field. But it cannot be done by workers alone. Leadership is critical in shaping organizational culture, which often models the personality of the leader. Leaders set the tone through communicating, modeling, and rewarding.

Achieving Psychological Safety Is Key to Organizational Change

Psychological safety is important when it comes to big changes. A switch to DevOps is a huge change and can make people nervous for many reasons. One of the primary concerns for the workforce is the impact on their livelihood. However, change can be glorious if you’re psychologically prepared.

Brian Fox prescribed five critical steps to achieve psychological safety. By following these steps and achieving a culture that embraces change, organizations can realize the benefits. And this is true of any change—whether it’s embracing agile, DevOps, or whatever the future may bring.

This session was summarized by Phil Vuollet. Phil leads software engineers on the path to high levels of productivity. He writes about topics relevant to technology and business, occasionally gives talks on the same topics, and is a family man who enjoys playing soccer and board games with his children.