Taking Pride in Psychological safety


Psychological safety can be considered to be the collective lack of fear of expression; we should look to emulate the aspirations of our society when considering the best working environments for our teams.

As the heat builds, heralding the start of summer, I have given thought to the Pride celebrations that are common in June. In the past weeks there have been two of the greatest in New York and London; and in an idle hour of sunkissed self-reflection I pondered why I found these explosions of colour and expression so uplifting. It isn’t the visual spectacle or the expression of differentiation that I find enriching, more what the staging of the event says about our society, and how it stands against the forces that seek to divide and label us. My joy at Pride doesn’t come from the pageantry of the participants, but rather the inclusiveness of the wider society that accepts and celebrates it.

It is freedom that is celebrated. Initially this freedom was legal freedom, and slowly it evolved to be freedom of thought and now approaches freedom from judgement. We are reaching a normalisation, a situation where my eight year old sees our married gay friends no differently to any other couples he knows.

At the same time, yet on an entirely separate mental track, I have been involved in facilitating discussions on psychological safety with colleagues at BCG. These sessions began with an exploration of the concept – a definition. The ability to speak up with a contrary opinion was suggested, this then progressed to a sense of collective trust and then ultimately to an agreement on an environment free from fear, and explicitly the fear of judgement. This is not the absence of judgement; quite the opposite, it is an acknowledgement of objective criticism that appreciates, and actively seeks feedback.

I explain psychological safety as when someone, even if they do not have the full context, feels comfortable in raising a concern. Their concern being heard and discussed with no loss of face with the person who raised it feeling exactly the same regardless of whether they were shown to be right or wrong.

If trust is something that exists between two people, then psychological safety is the group equivalent. It is a characteristic of a collective rather than of an individual. You can’t take someone from a safe team, drop them into a group of strangers and expect them to behave as they did before. Psychological safety fills the gap between people; like mortar between bricks, it binds them together and enables them to build great things when individually, even as a large group, they are weak and easily fragmented.

The parallels between extravagantly colourful dancers in the streets of London and senior executives discussing team dynamics in a conference centre, are as stark as they are unexpected. They are both exploring a very deep emotional question, “what do we want from our environment?” Those executives were considering this from the compartmentalised perspective of a team working with a client; but this is a wider topic that belongs more to philosophy than business: What are the traits of a society we would desire to be part of?

In response I assert that freedom from oppression is one of the foundations of a world we would choose to inhabit. At the heart of oppression is the consequence of judgement. The more severe the judgement, the more restrictive the society becomes. It is no surprise that LGBT rights is a common yardstick for a society. When criticism of a regime is personally catastrophic then public protest ceases almost completely, but criticism only ceases openly. Those opinions still exist, seething under the surface like a buried blanket of malcontent. Within what most would consider to be a progressive society, we need to be tolerant to everything other than others’ intolerance. We aspire to universal psychological safety.

Stepping back from the immensity of sexual equality, these principles are replicated in teams, like microcosms of the world around them. The brilliant TED talk here from Amy Edmondson makes the case in simple terms with real world consequences. It is unfortunate that the situations that have the most severe consequences of failure look to mitigate them through penalties which repress the actions most likely to prevent them, repressing that lone perspective that that isn’t the wire to cut, or that isn’t the right incision to make, or that civilian isn’t a terrorist. The consequence of repression of opinion in unsafe environments is hugely damaging because it robs us of the only weapon we have to combat the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world to which we are now struggling to adapt. It robs us of feedback, it steals the opportunity to learn and therefore improve. Being wrong isn’t a failure of learning, it is the very essence of it. The only real failure is the failure to learn, and without a conscious effort to engender and sustain a psychologically safe environment you are risking everything to protect the sensibilities of others. This isn’t just theory, the much lauded work environments of Google and Spotify explicitly call out psychological safety as critical to their success. Effective delivery is found between people: it isn’t the efforts of the individuals that bring moments of brilliance but in the marrying of minds and ideas between them and psychological safety enables those minds to connect.

It is important to address a common misconception, a false association with niceness that enables some to dismiss the concept as an abdication of responsibility for delivery. The author Allison Vesterfelt addresses this elegantly when she compares niceness to the much more powerful concept of kindness.

Niceness stays quiet. Kindness speaks up. Niceness is toxic. Kindness is healing. Niceness lies to keep the peace. Kindness knows the only way to make peace is to tell the truth. Niceness holds back. Kindness moves forward with humility gentleness, and grace.

Psychological safety enables kindness, niceness is the antithesis.

Unfortunately psychological safety is not something that you can purchase or achieve though participation at an expensive training session. Like happiness, it is a lagging trait. Like a seed, you can’t make it grow through sheer force of effort, you need to create the right environment, and step back. It will grow slowly and steadily but like a seedling, it is most vulnerable when just a young tender shoot. Teams are most at risk when they initially open up to each other, a misjudged word then will cause more damage than had the team not started to open up in the first place..

It is easier to bring about psychological safety as a member of the group rather than as the courageous activist, “Be the change you want to see in the world” and hold back from countering alternative opinions. It starts with vulnerability and stepping back from the trappings of power and authority. A desire to retain and enforce hierarchy is one of the most insidious enemies of a safe environment. Leaders need to step back from the trappings of power and authority to prove to teams that they genuinely welcome free expression. They must allow themselves to be vulnerable to having their suggestion countered or even dismissed, and when that happens they absolutely must react positively. In the long run it is better to be loved than feared. Rewards and recognition are at the centre of changing behaviours and culture. Those that speak up deserve kind words and respectful listening. Ultimately if a team can agree it is everyone’s personal responsibility to make everyone else look good, or even better than themselves; then psychological safety will flourish.

I am fortunate to have worked in teams where I could speak up, and I am proud to be able to say I have had my suggestions countered, been hurt by the criticism and managed to let go, prioritising the team dynamic over my own fragile ego. I have felt the infectious enthusiasm that comes from a safe team, it was a wondrous sensation that enabled fantastic delivery.

However I am prouder still to live in a society that celebrates my liberty to paint a rainbow on my face and not only does not judge me for doing so, but does not even assume that I am LGBT. I wish everything could be this psychologically safe.


Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.

Follow me on twitter: @philagiledesign 

or reach me on LinkedIn here

How Strategy Consulting firms are addressing their most complex problem


It is the journey,  not the destination


Today’s business world is deeply complex. Complex as distinct to complicated. The distinction between these two is absolutely critical and is at the heart of the biggest challenge the consulting industry has ever faced.

Simply put; complex problems are those where the consequence of cause and effect is understandable but not precisely predictable, whereas complicated problems are entirely logical, and by extension fully predictable, which makes for a much more prescriptive approach to solutions and estimates.

There is nothing more inherently complex than the relationships between people, which, when combined with the premise that the best delivery comes from high performing teams, brings a slow realisation that the ultimate goal is how to enable and sustain these amazing teams.  Complicated problems, in contrast, do not last long, for the reason that once solved, they remain solved. The solution, by definition, can be repeated, and importantly for our modern digital age, anything repeatable is automatable. The rise of the machines has enabled our society to focus on the complex problems that remain, like a sunken settlement revealed by the draining of a lake. This change is occurring rapidly, certainly more rapidly than our business culture and management models have been able to adapt to. As a consequence we still approach these complex problems with the same mindset; question: answer; Problem: solution; Clear cause: precise effect.

Companies turn to external consultants for their expertise, for their ability to help solve problems but ultimately to obtain a solution. There is a huge expectation to have an answer, or better still the answer.  Here is the consultant’s dilemma, the ultimate in complex challenges:

How to give a successful complicated response to a complex problem?

Prescriptive answers to complex problems will inevitably fail, and the greater the timeline and scale, the poorer the result; but the alternative is a commercial minefield. How can you sell an idea that you haven’t had yet? How do you sell an operating model that can’t be defined other than through an emergent collaborative experience? It is a difficult response to give, instead of answering the question, suggesting that the question is wrong. They are being asked “What do I need to do?”, whereas it needs to be turned round until it becomes, “How do I learn what to do?”


The concept of Agile transformation has progressed a lot over the past few years, it has done so not through moments of genius, but the same way that we progress with all complex problems, through emergent discovery with as many learnings as successes. However it is important to acknowledge there have been successes. Some fairly enormous enterprises have really seen substantial shifts to a more Agile approach to business including such seemly unlikely candidates as banks and airlines. So what is the solution, what is the magical silver bullet? It is tempting to analyse what was done, collate findings, examine the end state and advocate those ways of working and commoditise it as being “the solution”.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that. The moral buried in each tale of success is that each is unique. If something worked it’s because it was carefully created and continually adapted to match the combination of culture, people and market conditions of that organisation and those conditions will never be repeated.  It is the journey, not the destination that was successful.

The challenge all B2B service companies have, is how to build trust. If the offering is expertise to help an organisation address their problems then that organisation is going to want some assurance that the partner’s skills and experience will be beneficial. Having some manner of playbook is the shortest, fastest and has been the most successful means of doing this. It reduces the client’s perception of risk because they believe they know what they are buying, but it exposes them to a risk of a pre-defined solution because playbooks tend towards artefacts and standardised process, they are designed to enable repetition, they are designed for complicated problems. They are yesterday’s solution for yesterday’s problem.


There are many playbooks, models or frameworks incorporating process, practice and method out there, all suggesting that their version is different and a little better than the others. They advocate that their approach will deliver the utopian business agility desired by business leaders everywhere.

There is merit in these models, at least some of them, or to be pedantic, some of some of them. The phrase, “All models are wrong, some are useful” was coined from statistical models but applies equally well in this context. The weakest models are those that lead organisations to believe that they can achieve business agility with no reference to organisational design and its supporting constructs of HR, finance and culture; but even those that are process heavy and customer light, can help in certain contexts as a good first step out of confusion. Any model that prescribes a formula of process and practice to achieve success will ultimately fail because it can’t adapt to the responses of those affected by it.  The big distinction to look for in Agile models is between those that prescribe an approach to learning and change, versus those that look to implement process and practice.

The best models are those that look to frame conversations rather than offer clear answers. What is needed is something that highlights the need to hold discussions on a plethora of topics; dialogues, not lectures. Some of those conversations will be short as the participants learn that things are in a good place, others will be long and difficult as they mutually discover there are significant differences between where they are and where they would like to be. Just discussing where they would like to be is hugely important. What is needed is a companion for a journey, not a guidebook for a destination. Models that give direction and purpose are much more likely to be effective than those that articulate a detailed solution.


To navigate out of this awkward dichotomy between undeliverable solutions and unsellable learning, the approach the strategy consultancies are now taking is to bring years of experience in navigating difficult journeys into a communicable format that their clients can buy into. What they have is an initial proposal of something that can be tried together and learnt from, where the learning is more important than the actual output. It is the learnings that help both parties better understand each other and where their journey will lead. Experienced consultants have taken many journeys, each has ended in a different place and each has had unique challenges but there will have been many pitfalls that were avoided with the aid of those experienced guides.

While Agile transformations are occurring in a very wide range of industries, every problem is a “people problem” and the ability to recognise those human challenges early is important for success. Experience is more valuable than theoretical knowledge here, it is the speed to learn that is important, the speed to recognise situations encountered elsewhere and adapt. This breadth of exposure to human challenges is behind why most Agile Transformations are supported by external staff, either expert independent contractors or consultancies.

There is one more element that is absolutely critical, and without which things flounder and the rich harvests from fertile ground slowly wither. It is not enough to seek learning, it must be enabled. Organisations are amazingly resilient in their culture, and will automatically protect themselves against changes that threaten the status quo. There are processes and rules which exist to perpetuate the observance of the processes and rules. For any substantive change to occur it requires those that are seen to own the status quo, to be actively involved in the change. This provides a safe space for everyone else to learn and importantly act upon those learnings to make the organisation a better place. It is the role of senior leadership to facilitate all other employees to learn, change and adapt; through their participation all others will feel sufficiently liberated to act. Once leaders are seen to value experimentation over compliance then the vast learning potential of the organisation can be tapped. It is this last piece of the puzzle where the strategy consultancies really have the edge over many others of equal talent in the market place. They have the relationships, and consequently trust, from senior leaders necessary to make clear the need for their involvement. They have the opportunity and the experience of supporting, coaching these leaders in making those journeys.


In summary; whilst the challenge of addressing complex problems to those that expect complicated solutions remains, strategy consultancies are uniquely positioned in being able to address the underlying issue. Success in this domain requires three things:

  • Comprehensive technical knowledge of Agile values, principles, associated progressive leadership techniques, and the many Agile models; what has worked elsewhere and the strengths and weaknesses each
  • Extensive experience in learning and adapting to address the human challenges that occur when trying to instil unfamiliar concepts and principles on culture, leadership and value centric delivery
  • Deep relationships with the leadership of organisations with the ability to express the changes and investments that are needed from them, not just their teams, to ensure understanding that Agile is about business values not IT processes

There are few players that can claim strong capabilities in all three areas. The challenge will always remain for the Strategy consultancies in balancing the complicated demands against the complex reality but their learning centric approach has the capability to deliver faster and with better results than anything else. The question that remains for these companies looking to embark on their journeys is, who do they want as their guide?


Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.

Follow me on twitter: @philagiledesign 

or reach me on LinkedIn here