The Agile Architect

Safe Agile Environments and the Power of Ideas

Software development is a creative process that requires a safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing their bizarre ideas that lead to that next great breakthrough. Our Agile Architect discusses the importance of a safe environment for a successful and creative agile culture.

I was talking with one of my colleagues recently about the creative process I use to write these Agile Architect columns. I found myself explaining that in order to keep the articles interesting, I had to constantly make myself vulnerable, exposing myself and my ideas to potential ridicule by the agile community, and risking my professional reputation. (Exposing myself. Yes, I know. I said it. Stop snickering!) But the alternative is to write a column that manifests with a fear of controversy, that tows the agile line, and that says nothing new nor is informed by my own personal experiences.

So how do I do it? It's not like I'm fearless or infallible. I can do it because my editor at ADT Magazine, Becky Nagel (Editor's Note: Hey, that's me!), creates a safe environment for me. No matter what crazy idea I come up with (Remember "The Agile Tailor"?) , she tells me how wonderful and important my columns are.

Contrast this with my first job in industry working for a medical imaging device manufacturer (you've never heard of them and they aren't in business anymore, so there's no point in trying to guess who they are). I was in a meeting with a good fraction of the Engineering Department trying to figure out a particularly tricky problem that the company president had thrown at us. It involved hardware, software and physics, so we were all in a room together trying to figure it out. Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea. The solution was clear! I started laying it all out, explaining how the solution would work and seeing the approving expression on my boss's face. I described my plan to execute the changes, pointing to our electronics expert excitedly saying "You do this." then to one of the software developers "and you do this…" then to a fellow physicist, "and you do this!" And then suddenly the physicist was yelling back at me "You don't tell me what to do! Only the company president can tell me what to do!" He stormed out of the room and for the life of me I didn't understand why.

At least not until I had been at the company longer and seen the line of people that the president had fired, some on the spot, because they said or did something he didn't like.

Perhaps the worst incident was when he called all but one person from Engineering into the board room. As we sat there, he told us that he was going to fire this person that afternoon unless one of us gave him a reason not to. We all knew that if we said anything, we'd be the next one out the door. The room was deathly silent. He continued, "Then we are all in agreement. He's gone this afternoon." And with that, we were all accomplices.

Now that was an unsafe environment!

Why Is Safety Important for Creativity?
By its very nature, creativity requires us to share something new with the world. It exposes our thought processes, our knowledge of the world around us, our intelligence and even our business sense. And that's scary. Safety makes this easier though not necessarily easy. When safety is missing, people aren't as apt to share for fear of the repercussions.

The safest environment, of course, is when you are all alone. But creativity can't just happen in the shower.

How Do You Create a Safe Environment?
A safe environment is an important catalyst for spawning new ideas. But creating that environment can be tough. Keeping it can be even tougher.

Unfortunately, you can't mandate a safe environment. The utterance of "Though shalt be safe!" by your boss is one of the most effective ways to ensure that you have an unsafe environment. Instead, the leaders -- not just the bosses but all leaders in your company -- have to lead by example. Opinions have to be respected, even of those less experienced. Patience must be exercised to ensure all voices are heard.

Some situations call for explicit safety. Brainstorming exercises and retrospectives are examples of situations  where safety is critical. If people are afraid that their ideas will be rejected, they won't speak up. It is incumbent on the facilitator of these activities to ensure a safe environment up front or cancel the activity.

Some situations require implicit safety. Software development is a creative act. In an agile environment, we encourage safety by working closely together, discussing issues, sharing code and continually working together to improve.

But while safety and creativity may go hand in hand, there may be different levels of creativity in different situations that require different kinds of safety.
For example, we can think of creative situations as short-burst of high creativity and as long-running durations of sustainable creativity.

Short-burst creativity may be required for brainstorming session, crisis mitigation discussions, strategy sessions on how to meet a seemingly impossible deadline, and many other short-term, high impact scenarios. In this situation, the team can set up rules of engagement and safety applicable to the situation and that will focus creativity to the problem at hand. The rules are temporary and malleable. The team can even become creative with the rules, rapidly changing them to see if it helps their creativity to explore different aspects of the problem. For example, switching from an anonymous activity that provides extreme safety but little collaboration to a group exercise that is less safe but encourages collaboration.

However, you don't want to limit your team to short bursts of creativity. Creativity needs to happen continuously in the war room, where every day the team is engaged in the creative exercise of software development. Such an open-ended setting may need different rules of safety to encourage a different level of creativity. For example, it might not be the best idea to let every member of the team be freely creative in how they implement that umpteenth model-view-presenter triad. That leads to hard-to-maintain code and chaos. In such a situation, you want to encourage creativity within certain well-known boundaries. A team member that violates those boundaries might justifiably face an appropriate level of push-back from the team.

When you can create a safe environment for creativity within an entire organization, creativity starts to get interesting because you can create cross-discipline solutions, e.g. sales people helping to solve an engineering problem or vice-versa. 

How Do You Keep a Safe, Creative Environment?
Constant practice.

It's simple but its true. In order to have a sustainable safe and creative environment, it has to be infused throughout the fabric of your organization. I can't tell you how to do this. Every company culture is different. I can tell you that there has to be time, effort and thought given to it. Having one or more individuals acting as champions can be critical to not losing out to apathy and disuse.

Final Thoughts...
I was raised in a safe environment. I'm used to living and working in safe environments. I've worked in unsafe environments but it is very unnatural to me. For others, the opposite may be true. So to create an environment at work where everyone feels safe, it means understanding your teammates, your colleagues outside of your team and the culture of your company. But the effort pays off in the increased creativity that leads to those winning solutions that you just couldn't have imagined possible.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Balbes is Chief Technology Officer at Docuverus. He received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Duke University in 1992, then continued his research in nuclear astrophysics at Ohio State University. Dr. Balbes has worked in the industrial sector since 1995 applying his scientific expertise to the disciplines of software development. He has led teams as small as a few software developers to as large as a multi-national Engineering department with development centers in the U.S., Canada, and India. Whether serving as product manager, chief scientist, or chief architect, he provides both technical and thought leadership around Agile development, Agile architecture, and Agile project management principles.