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DevOpsGroup Blog Why digital transformation needs psychological safety

Why digital transformation needs psychological safety

Psychological safety is a hot topic in IT circles. It has an important role to play countering the burnout epidemic rife in the tech sector. And it’s also a critical factor for digital transformation.

What is psychological safety?

Definitions of psychological safety invariably draw on the words of Amy Edmondson, the pioneer of psychological safety in the workplace. She describes it as “a shared belief that [a] team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”.

So, it’s about the softer factors of team dynamics, such as trust, respect and feeling comfortable with the people around you. But make no mistake, it is firmly aligned with harder factors too.

If you want to get ahead of the competition with innovative products that drive customer satisfaction and commercial success, psychological safety needs to be high on your agenda.  

What’s this got to do with digital transformation?

A core principle of digital transformation is the formation of long-lived, multiskilled digital product teams embodying a DevOps ethos. These teams take full responsibility for a product throughout its entire lifecycle, which demands new ways of working.

When product-centric teams are formed, it takes a while for individuals to adapt and work well together. Over time, they pass through certain stages. At some point, it is inevitable – even desirable – that they encounter conflict. The way team interactions are handled lays the foundations for a psychologically safe (or unsafe) work environment.

It’s worth remembering the four stages of team development associated with psychologist Bruce Tuckman here:

Forming: In the first stage, team members are still reliant on the leader for guidance and direction. There can be tensions between individuals as the dynamics evolve and people test the system.

Storming: By this stage, team members have clarity of purpose, but there can still be friction and uncertainty. The leader may need to resolve internal power struggles.

Norming: This is where the team comes together as a cohesive unit. Roles and responsibilities are understood. Everyone understands and is committed to team goals as opposed to personal goals.

Performing: Once the team is strategically aware and can attain goals without letting friction stall progress, it can operate autonomously and productively. The leader can take a step back and focus on other areas of work.   

Tuckman suggests a team only reaches its full potential when it passes through all four stages. However, if people don’t feel psychologically safe, teams can get stuck in a repeating loop between ‘storming’ and ‘norming’. They manage OK, but they rumble along never quite breaking the cycle to progress to the optimum ‘performing’ stage.

Why trust is central to everything

Trust is the key to breaking this repetitive cycle. Without it, team members are afraid to take risks, which hinders innovation. They tend to defer decisions to others, which slows things down. They’re less likely to learn, which means opportunities to improve are missed. 

All of this goes against the values of a digitally transformed organisation. Fundamentally, it blocks the ability to adapt seamlessly and quickly to changing customer needs.

For digital products to evolve at pace, teams need to be comfortable with experimentation. It will generate ideas that don’t work and mistakes will happen. But sticking with what is safe and certain will never generate adequate throughput of new ideas.

Product-centric teams can and should become an organisation’s engine room of innovation. We’re talking about ongoing incremental improvements to the customer experience as well as big ideas. For this to happen, individuals need to share more of their ideas, observations and learnings. They need to feel able to speak up without fear of ridicule or recrimination, especially where failure is concerned.

When a work environment is not psychologically safe, people are more likely to focus on self-preservation than team progression. They don’t say what they think. They don’t air problems they’ve encountered, things that went wrong or thoughts on how things could be done better. So, the team keeps reverting to the ‘storming’ mode and individuals become disgruntled, dissatisfied and disheartened.

How leaders can foster psychological safety

At the end of the day, digital transformation is more about people than it is about technology. It’s also more about how people interact than the specific skills they bring.

Google famously discovered this in its Project Aristotle initiative, where psychological safety was established as the single most important factor in determining team effectiveness.

You don’t have to be Google to make this work in your organisation. You can start by modelling the behaviours that underpin psychological safety. Talk about your own failures, things you could have done better or differently. Then encourage others to do the same. Embrace this as a team-based learning exercise that happens on a regular basis.

It could be just what it takes to tip the digital transformation odds in your favour.

Read more about the cultural aspects of digital transformation in our whitepaper Culture: make people your competitive advantage. It’s part of our Adaptive IT Framework which helps organisations navigate the extensive, interconnected elements of transformational change.

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