Home > The Agile Team > Why Agile Teams Need to Embrace Risk

Why Agile Teams Need to Embrace Risk

When I first started providing Agile training for software development teams looking to abandon their waterfall approach, I found myself consistently working with mavericks, teams of developers looking to push the envelope on what was possible.  These teams were on the bleeding edge of innovation, and as such, they often were habitual practitioners of risk taking.  Not the risk that those of us with a project management background may have traditionally defined it as, but a simple willingness to explore the unknown in search for a better outcome, where such an outcome is not guaranteed.

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Those teams from just a few years ago are no longer the risk takers they once were.  Those teams have been replaced by teams comprised of nervous individuals, afraid to do much of anything that does not come neatly packaged with a guaranteed outcome.  The willingness to risk has been wholly replaced by an inflexible adherence to metrics that measure the team’s ability to meet expectations and estimates, but say nothing about product quality and the importance of a happy customer.

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Software development teams are losing sight of what is truly important.  These teams are worried more about satisfying internally defined processes as opposed to building great software and endeavoring to satisfy their customer.  And sadly I am seeing this trend on the rise rather than the decline.  In this battered economy, I am seeing teams of talented people under-promising in their efforts and estimates, so that they can minimize the risk of falling short on a deadline or a deliverable.  I am not saying that missing a deadline or deliverable is a good thing only that  I am seeing these teams behave from a place of fear because their employers are rewarding the wrong results and inadvertently punishing, or at the very least discouraging, the right behaviors.

How have we so quickly become adept at management from this place of fear?  Is it the economy that has created this fear based professional economy of cowards?  Partially, possibly, but I started seeing this trend before the economy passed the event horizon.  So what type of organization, company, culture, or management approach is cultivating this crop of individuals?  (I use the word ‘individuals’ loosely, based on the herd mentality I have also noticed.)  What is being put in the drinking water at these IT companies?  Probably most importantly, what can we do to reverse course on what is likely to become the silent killer of innovation and workplace happiness.

The answer is simple.

Failed efforts to improve must be celebrated.
Failed attempts at a new approach must be cheered.
Failed attempts at doing anything out the circle of comfort must be rewarded.
Failure itself must be de-stigmatized.
Failure as a term must be taken off our list of bad corporate words.
Failure must be redefined as the hallmark of a team on a path towards greatness.
To be great, we must fail.

Failure is a product of good Agile teams.
Failure is an absolute necessity for great Agile teams.
Failure redraws the lines that bound the area of comfort which typically define an average team’s actions, as they rarely or never act outside of this zone.  They rarely act outside of this zone because anything over this line represents effort without a guarantee of positive outcome.failgreatly

For great Agile teams, this line, this ‘boundary’ defines the point at which they have the possibility of improving, growing, producing results that exceed their own expectations or understanding.  This line does not bound their actions, it simply provides measure against which they can judge their ability and extent to act outside this zone.  Great teams are defined by their ability to constantly re-evaluate and re-draw this line.  The ‘boundary’ for great teams fails to bind at all and becomes a reflection of the great team’s greatness.

When I began training teams on the tenets of Agile, I trained great teams.  Today I see average teams.  And the discouraging trend is towards average being the preference.

Now I am not all about simply pointing out doom and gloom trends as I see them, I would also like to offer a practical approach to how to stem this tide.  I stated above that we need to embrace failure.  Sure, I said that in a very specific way to elicit some response, but in truth if we, as a team, only pursue those actions that have a guarantee of successful outcome, then we will only ever produce the known.  Agile teams, with short design and production cycles can actually fail, and fail quickly, while still being successful.  Short term failures are then replaced with the possibility of long term innovation.

If you always do what you have always done, then expect to get what you always got. Agile teams embrace change and often strike out into the unknown for nothing more than the possibility that they may be able to create something greater than for which they could have planned.  Agile teams are those mavericks from the past.  They are the explorers.  We must encourage breaking the chains that I see are binding teams today, teams that see their boundary as insurmountable.  We are creating teams, environments, and cultures of mediocrity.  Nothing great was ever created by individuals that made their decisions from fear.

We are either growing or dying.  We are either deciding to do great things or deciding to shrink our influence.  The decision is ours to make.  And I know what I have decided.

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  1. June 3rd, 2009 at 13:17 | #1

    I get what you are saying here… but how does a company distinguish failure from risk taking from failure due to mediocrity. If we value outcomes… failure is failure. Is there a way to distinguish good failure from bad failure?

  2. June 3rd, 2009 at 13:26 | #2

    Hey Mike, thanks for stopping by!

    For my first real post to my blog, I suppose I was a little heavy handed in saying that failure was solely a virtue. In reality, if we are truly measuring success by results, then failure is not always a virtue, not always good. The main point that I attempted to make was simply that some great things often can come from failed attempts. History is full of examples of where true inspiration came from attempting something outside of our guarantee of a positive result. And just like most other things Agile, reason needs to temper our project decisions.

    I think that with a healthier attitude on outcomes that don’t always meet expectations we can pull value where sometimes value is not seen.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting. I respect your opinion immensely!

  1. June 2nd, 2009 at 10:27 | #1
  2. April 4th, 2010 at 20:04 | #2