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Illuminating the Intangibles of Agile

We intuitively know that a successful agile adoption requires more than copying agile practices. It needs more than just working in short iterations and having daily stand-up meetings. But can we label those missing ingredients?

You may have seen the “agile iceberg” model that shows the visible practices agile teams perform as the tip of an enormous iceberg supported by a mindset, values and principles. However, terms like “values” and “mindset” are intangible and difficult to reconcile with traditional skillsets.

Agile Iceberg

Organizations fail when they try to switch to an agile way of working by just implementing the visible agile work practices without the invisible supporting components. They fail because they are missing two key elements:

  1. A psychologically safe environment in which to work
  2. Belief in the core agile mindset and values

These factors may sound soft, fuzzy and hard to define, so let’s examine some of the thinking behind them…

​​​1. Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is a subset of emotional intelligence. It is part of working with others and deals with how comfortable we are at interacting, contributing and questioning others at work. In the book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, author Timothy Clark outlines a model for understanding psychological safety. As the book title states, it progresses through four stages:

4 Stages of Safety

  1. Inclusion Safety is the basic human need to belong and be accepted by a group. People need to feel safe to be themselves, including any unique or peculiar attributes. Without inclusion safety, people feel excluded from the group.
  2. Learner Safety is the encouragement needed to learn, experiment and grow. It requires us to feel safe when asking questions, getting feedback, trying things out and making a few mistakes along the way. Without learner safety, people will be unwilling to try new approaches.
  3. Contributor Safety is having the autonomy needed to build something valuable and make a difference—the feeling of safety required to contribute something and have it judged by others. Without contributor safety, people will guard their work for too long, waiting for it to be perfect and miss out on early feedback. They will also not feel like they are making a difference.
  4. Challenger Safety is having the permission and “air cover” necessary to challenge the status quo, to question why things are done that way and suggest ways to make something better. Without challenger safety, retrospectives and improvement initiatives will suffer since no one will be willing to speak up and discuss what is wrong.

The concepts of inclusion, encouragement, autonomy and “air cover” associated with the four levels of psychological safety play an essential role in the invisible, under-the-waterline support structure of successful agile teams.

Project managers, product owners, scrum masters and team leads establish this psychological safety by modeling the desired behavior. This is done by admitting their mistakes, asking basic questions and generally “learning out loud” to show they do not have all the answers either—and it is okay and encouraged for people to be open.

2. The Agile Mindset and Values
Agile projects apply a different mindset than traditional, predictive approaches. Predictive projects work from the idea that things can be specified upfront, and the role of the project manager is to break down the work into simpler and simpler steps until they can be handed out to team members. For predictive projects, the mantra “plan the work, work the plan” applies.

Agile projects believe the team is best positioned to co-design and co-create the solution in collaboration with the business. There is no complete upfront design; instead, it emerges through exploration and use. If agile projects had a corresponding mantra, it would contain words such as “incrementally build the highest value solution via collaboration in empowered teams.”

So, predictive projects use design followed by build with centralized coordination, while agile projects use design and build in parallel with distributed coordination.

One approach is not necessarily better than the other. Projects and programs often combine work that suits both systems. The role of the modern project manager involves being fluent in each approach and knowing when and how to implement them.

However, returning to our theme of illuminating some of the agile mindset values, both the mindset and values build on from psychological safety. They include ideas such as:

  • Collaboration – Together we are stronger than we are as individuals.
  • Build and feedback - Some things are not knowable upfront; we learn through building and soliciting feedback.
  • Value-driven – Take an economic view of decision making and aim to optimize business value.
  • Welcoming change and responding to it – Understand that we will learn as we go—and this will require ongoing change.
  • Continuous delivery – Deliver through small value-add slices. Frequently check priorities and reprioritize if advantageous.

In the book Collaboration Explained, author Jean Tabaka explains that collaborative teams have the following properties:

  1. Self-organizing - The team is self-organizing vs. command-and-control top-down organizations.
  2. Empowered to make decisions - The team is empowered to discuss, evaluate and make decisions vs. being dictated to by an outside authority.
  3. Belief in vision and success - Team members understand the project vision and goals, and truly believe that, as a team, they can solve any problem to achieve them.
  4. Committed team - Team members are committed to succeed as a team vs. individual success at any cost.
  5. Trust each other - The team has the confidence to continually work in improving their ability to act without fear, anger or bullying.
  6. Participatory decision making - The team is engaged in participatory decision making vs. bending to authoritarian decision making or succumbing to decisions from others.
  7. Consensus-driven - Decisions are consensus-driven vs. leader-driven. Team members share their opinions freely and participate in the final decision.
  8. Constructive disagreement - The team is able to negotiate through a variety of alternatives and impacts surrounding a decision, and craft the one that provides the best outcome.

These characteristics can be evaluated at a retrospective through anonymous surveys. The image below shows data gathered from six team members on a range of 1-5 on each of the eight collaboration factors:

Team Review

We can use tools such as this—and an understanding of psychological safety—to determine if we have the requisite elements in place for an agile approach to be successful.

Agile adoption can be hindered by the sometimes-foreign language used in agile approaches. Yet ideas from Scrum and XP (such as transparency and courage) are just instances of psychological safety that we can trace to “working with others” in emotional intelligence.

Likewise, collaboration—the secret sauce of effective agile teams—can be tracked to buy-in for specific attributes. These include being self-organizing, being empowered to make decisions, having a belief in the vision, being consensus-driven, trusting each other and having constructive disagreements. No easy feat, but not mystical or unobtainable, either.

Effective agile teams can seem elusive, but they all share common attributes of psychological safety and good collaboration skills. Of course, we also need good stewardship and process, too. However, when we focus on mindset instead of work practices and outcomes instead of outputs, we are on the road to successful agile teams.

Many of the agile terms may sound alien at first, but they are often just replacements for emotional intelligence concepts that have been around for ages. Learning some of the theory behind the practices can help us shed light on the underlying ideas.


[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]



Linda Fane

Insightful article Mike. Love the acknowledgement of the intangibles that have so much power yet are invisible. It will drives the engineers on my team crazy:-).

Mike Griffiths

Hi Linda, I am glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your comment.

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