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Agile Fails Without Psychological Safety

Over the last two decades, the agile movement has gained remarkable momentum, extending beyond software development into areas like HR, project management, and customer service. However, approximately half of agile transformations fail. To understand why your team might not be achieving the fast, seamless, scalable solutions agile promises, it’s crucial to identify the barriers. After evaluating several agile teams and interviewing leading agile experts, the primary issue is often neglecting the first value of the Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Agile processes and tools are supportive scaffolding, but the true foundation of agile is the team’s dialogic process—the way team members interact. This process determines success by facilitating intellectual friction, essential for interdependent work. High psychological safety encourages innovation, while low psychological safety fosters fear and inhibits agility. Teams fail when members fear vulnerability, censor themselves, and shift into self-preservation mode.

To foster a collaborative, successful agile team, focus on increasing psychological safety through these five practical steps:

  • Frame agile as a cultural implementation, not just a technical one.
  • Develop, document, and display vulnerable behavior/response pairings.
  • Focus on one behavior during each scrum and practice cultural accountability.
  • Formally evaluate your dialogic process in the sprint retrospective.
  • Conclude scrums with reflective questions to encourage deeper thinking.

Ultimately, successful agile transformations depend on the core enabler: psychological safety.

Isabel Leung and Howie Sung are the co-founders of The Agile Eagle, the premiere Scrum, and Agile training and coaching organization.

Join Isabel and Howie in a Professional training course: https://theagileeagle.com/category/professional-training.

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