Teams from Scratch —Part 1: Psychological Safety

December 2017 — I had the privilege and opportunity of transitioning from Senior Developer at Unruly to a Team Lead of a newly-created team.

The new team was created to tackle a recurring issue at Unruly — our teams relied on multiple shared services for observability, alerting, and configuration management.

These services, while functional and only rarely prone to error, did not receive the same level of attention as our core products and therefore were only maintained, not advanced. When everyone is responsible, no-one is.

Taking the name SHIFT (a shortening of Shared Infrastructure Team), we had an opportunity to start a team from scratch, without needing to cookie-cutter process from the core product teams … although we could, if we wanted.

A snapshot from one of our team wipe-boards.

In this multi-part series, I’ll be recounting my experiences of the different facets of our team culture and process, deliberate and emergent behaviors, and how it has shaped our team’s direction.

This part is about what we do to create an environment with Psychological Safety.

I’ve been at Unruly for approaching six years, and with that comes six years of understanding from a lot of mistakes—however, a lot of that knowledge is specialized, and the team as a whole come from front-end/back-end development backgrounds, not infrastructure.

Thus, it was important for us to build a culture where asking questions and admitting gaps in knowledge was okay.

What is psychological safety?

For us, psychological safety was that every member of the team felt safe taking risks: asking “silly” questions, putting forward their views and arguments, making mistakes.

A team of individuals that feel empowered to experiment, safe to make mistakes, and able to deal with conflict in a constructive and non-violent way will grow and learn incredibly quickly.

On a personal level, I wanted the team to feel happy working with each-other to tackle problems, and made it a top priority to embed this into our working practices and values.

How did we build it into our team culture?

  • Team Lead setting example — I have been deliberately bringing my whole self to work, to encourage openness and set a positive example.
    I received a course of therapy earlier this year, to deal with some mental health issues, and I was very open about this with the team.
    This is not to say that everyone should be open about everything, but should feel safe speaking about themselves if they need to, in public or in private.
  • Regular feedback sessions — We have sessions to give each-other both positive and constructive feedback. Some of the “rules” are that no team member has to give or receive feedback, and that the feedback should be specific (not “You always do X”) and I-statements (not “You always do X”).
  • Asking for clarification or more detail is fine—There will be different methods by which team members learn best even in a small team like ours. Some of the team are very visual learners, and learn best from diagrams, and some prefer analogies and metaphor.
    We’ve tried to embed the idea that it’s okay for one member of the pair or mob to stop and ask for explanation in another form that helps them learn best.
    This empathy helps tailor our explanations in the moment, and encourages cognizance of each-other’s needs
  • Blameless post-incident retrospectives — The flip-side of being able to make mistakes safely is that when mistakes happen, we don’t point fingers and apportion blame.
    If something in our process enabled an outage to be manually triggered, that’s a problem with the process, not the person.
    We found Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive a good starting point: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
  • Not everything works for everyone — the tools above are fine and good, but they also make assumptions that everyone works the same way, or deals with questions/conflict equally. We encourage empathy and awareness of each-others’ needs where it’s reasonable to expect (e.g. social cues may not be as obvious to some people as others).

There are many more things we do, as part of our conscious everyday practice and process, but these are the first concrete first steps.

We found that these processes and cultural axioms created an environment that supported different kinds of positive emergent behavior that we did not expect, and I’ll discuss in more detail in the next post, about our team’s sense of Belonging.