Fear Has To Go for High Performing Teams To Succeed

Anthony Mersino
October 28, 2016

How pervasive is fear in our workplaces? Take a moment and think about your own company. Are people mostly fear free, or mostly fearful?

I ran into fear recently when working with a client new to Agile. We were talking about how Agile worked with teams. A team member asked a simple question that provided some insights into their thinking. He asked what was the punishment for teams that did not finish all their work planned for the Sprint.

The question revealed that this team member was accustomed to being held to their estimates and punished if the estimate did not match the actual. Estimates being what they are - guesses - it seems likely that most estimates for creative and exploratory work like SW development will not match the actual.

The Contract Game

A well-known Scrum and Agile expert refers to this as the "contract game". In the contract game, the business or customer requests a certain set of features and the IT or technology team estimates how long it will take. Though the estimates are just best guesses based on limited information, the customer takes it as a fixed contract. The IT team is expected to deliver to the original estimates even if things change or if the work turns out to be more complex than orginally envisioned.

The contract game is a zero-sum game - one team wins and one loses. Both sides try to cover their asses so that when things hit the fan, they can blame the other.

And things always change after the contract is signed. What changes? Well, it could be a true change of business need. It could also be just a new understanding of what is needed. Or it could be that the team learned something as they began to build the solution and it changed the business need. Holding the team to that original estimate that was made when the team had the least information is just nonsensical. But we do it all the time.

What is the downside of this behavior? What is the downside of holding technology to estimates made when they have the least information?

The downside is that the team has just one "lever" to use to get all the features completed by the promised date. The only lever the team can use to hit the date with all the features is to cut quality. The date may be met, but the problems introduced and the subsequent additional work will go on long after that delivery date.

I felt a mix of sadness and excitement for this new agile team member. Though the question revealed how they had been treated in previous projects, things would only get better in an Agile environment, if it were a true Agile environment. But we still have a long way to go with these teams in terms of changing the culture so that we unlock their potential.

Have No Fear, Creativity Is Here!

Fear and creativity cannot coexist. If we have fear, we don't have creativity, we have reduced productivity and are not working effectively. We are not leveraging the full potential of our people and teams. So fear, in all its forms has to go in order for teams to succeed with Agile.

In a future post, I will explore the concept of psychological safety, and how that is necessary to high performing teams.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.