Providing Safety as a Coach, Facilitator, or Scrum Master

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Have you ever been in a meeting where you could’ve heard a pin drop because it was so quiet?  Where people were not saying what was on their minds?  Why does that happen? 

Hint: it’s usually related to a lack of safety in the room

Where does safety come from?

Someone once told me that my competence provided safety to the people I coach—a lovely thought, and I can see truth in it.  My experience and knowledge allow me to provide teaching and mentoring, as well as reassurance that you’re not stuck with the status quo.  And I also see where my expertise occasionally makes others feel less safe—afraid that they will be caught doing something wrong or breaking rules.  In those moments, it’s as if I embody someone’s own conscience.  Safety has something to do with how you show up and create the environment, and it is also dependent on how others show up and interact within the environment.

I’ve seen the silent meetings occur when the facilitator ignored the group dynamics and neglected to create an environment for everyone to freely share opinions.  And I’ve also seen the silent meetings happen despite a facilitator doing just about everything in his control to foster a judgment-free environment.  Sometimes people aren’t ready to open up.  Skilled facilitators work hard to help people share and participate in meetings, and sometimes people are not ready for that right away.  Perhaps “getting real” is uncommon, either for the individual, the team, or the organization.  It can take time for folks to feel comfortable voicing their opinions; the facilitator must provide the safe environment at every opportunity so it is there when they are ready.

The art of providing safety

From June to October, I spent some of my weekends building a trebuchet with friends for the annual DFW Trebuchet Toss Off.  It’s a fun activity, and I enjoy being part of a team that builds something tangible (far different from my day job!).  This was my third year participating, and my role is that of Safety Czar.  Because honestly I’m not much of a builder, and I can’t carry much physically, but I do pay attention to group dynamics and making sure that those who are about to use a power saw are wearing safety goggles.  We had a lot of challenges this year with our trebuchet, and my schedule didn’t allow me to be at every build. I feel like I didn’t really fulfill my role this year.  I noticed when certain people were disengaged during the builds where I was present, and I didn’t do much to pull them into the active conversations.  I didn’t take a strong enough stand against some of the physical safety issues; while no one was really hurt, we did cause some damage that could have been prevented.  That doesn’t feel good. 

Coaches regularly see the places where people become uncomfortable—whether it’s the person who isn’t ready to face the real transformation that lies ahead or the team that isn’t ready to take the next step.  The coach stays with them in the moment and uses her skills to deepen the learning and forward the action.  It is not easy to do.  In fact, it can feel exhausting.  Listening intently, asking questions with curiosity, acknowledging and championing the strengths you see, and challenging old thinking… all in service of the person/people you are coaching.

I think that’s the key to providing safety: acting in service of them.  A Scrum Master assigned to a new team can facilitate an amazing retrospective and draw out the introverts if he acts from a place of serving the team as a whole.  A coach can ask hard questions of a team and provide a reality check if she acts from a place of serving the team.  If you act from a place of right/wrong, us/them, waterfall/agile, or win/lose, then safety is lost.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Creating Safety for Teams

Photo by Laura Bittner

Photo by Laura Bittner

My friend/mentor Gary likes to say that a good scrum master knows when to let a team feel some pain so that it can learn and grow, but he keeps the team from injury.  It can be difficult at times to know if a team's decision will cause pain or injury, but it is a question that should be asked before rushing to solve problems for the team.

Scrum masters, agile coaches, and managers need to create safe environments for teams to experiment and grow.  Yes, it can be nerve-wracking to watch a team make decisions contrary to what we would do, but learning may be stifled if the team is not free to make those "painful" decisions (again, we do not want teams to injure themselves).  It is our responsibility to provide relevant information to the team regarding any constraints so it can make wise decisions, to encourage open communication and collaboration, and to eradicate fear through knowledge sharing. 

One of the teams that I am coaching has its sprint retrospective this week, and there have been a number of challenges and issues that they've faced in the last 2 weeks that need to be discussed as a team; the scrum master and I chatted briefly about some of the issues that might come out during the retrospective and how to facilitate the meeting.  As a facilitator, he needs to stay neutral in the content of the meeting so the team feels a sense of ownership in improving its processes, practices, and working agreements.  He has decided to try the Constellation activity.  It's a great activity to "hear" from all of the individuals on a team without pressuring people to talk, which can help quieter team members to feel safe.  I've participated in this exercise a few times myself, and I am anxious to hear how the retrospective goes.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.