Human beings are fascinating; they are sometimes unable to be aware of the reality in which they evolve and to adapt accordingly. It is, in fact, paradoxical that they had the capacity to create an immensely complex world, but not to be aware of that complexity and adapt to it.

The logic would be to accept that, to address this complexity, it is hard to find the right solution right from the first attempt; thus, that it is normal to make mistakes. However, we are often conditioned and encouraged not to tolerate any errors (education, school, etc.), whether our own or those of others, and to view them as failures.

Therefore, it is unfortunately consistent with the fact that we find that logic in our organizations. In fact, have you ever asked yourself: In the organizations where I evolved, did management really give room for error? Did I give room for error to my colleagues? Did the organization considered mistakes as a means of improvement? Did they allow me to experience this means? The answer is often unambiguous…

But then, how do we explain that one of the main principles of Agility is to give room for error to individuals, teams, and management?

The basis of Agility is to put the individual at the centre of organizations and their projects. To do so, the main challenge will not be to change the processes in place nor to apply a new method, but to change the values and behaviours of individuals. Among those, room for error is an essential criterion that is found in many different aspects of Agility. For instance, it is the foundation of learning teams, iterative cycles, or Scrum pillars that are inspection and adaptation.

With Agility, new behaviours are valued. Teams are empowered. They are encouraged to make assumptions, to accept the fact that they can make mistakes, to talk about their mistakes in a secure and caring environment….

Here are behaviours that give room for error in organizations:

  • Kindness: To oneself and to others so mistakes may be considered a source of improvement
  • Empathy: Absolutely essential to give room for error to others
  • Courage: To allow oneself or someone else to make assumptions and to accept that we may be wrong
  • Humility: To accept that it’s not easy to improve ourselves and that we often fail
  • Long-term vision: To invest in people and believe in their ability to learn from their mistakes so as to deliver more value in a fulfilling atmosphere. This process obviously takes time.

Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that if, before the adoption to Agility, there was no room for error, the transition to an organization that allows it may take time. It is quite possible that some people will have trouble to allow themselves or the others to make mistakes. Once again, it is important not to judge oneself or the others and to allow time to accept and learn this new behaviour.

To ease the adaptation, we will tend to create environments that are safe and caring, so that individuals and teams will be able to talk about the mistakes made. This could be during the retrospective sessions at the end of iterations. The goal will then be to shift the paradigm; to go from blame, which soothes egos, but doesn’t make any constructive contribution, to finding solutions in order to learn and improve ourselves.

Even so, the right to make mistakes is not only theoretical; it must be concretely applied to the projects that you will have to carry out. Nowadays, it is accepted that it is impossible to anticipate all factors that will have an impact on a project, particularly in software development. This means that, throughout a project, there will be new constraints, changes in business priorities, poor technological choices, etc. Under these conditions, it would be absurd to believe that a team or an individual will not make any mistakes during the project execution.

Moreover, instead of trying to hide the errors that will inevitably be made, Agility advocates transparency as early and as regularly as possible. Short iterations will allow for very frequent inspection loops. The objective is for teams, thus individuals, to get used to going through this type of cycle: assumption, possible error, inspection, learning, adaptation, and new attempt.

With room for error, teams will no longer see errors as a failure or fatality, but rather as an opportunity for continuous improvement. This way of functioning allows teams to become learning teams.

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It is also interesting to note that, in addition to fostering learning teams, the right to make mistakes allows for the organization’s teams to be innovative. Innovation is indeed the successful aspect of risk taking, attempts, and researches. And it is way more complex to address than the error aspect. Teams will be mistaken more often than they will innovate, way more often! Therefore, to allow for innovation, there has to be room for error.

Despite all the benefits provided by Agility, it is still not the answer to every problem. Agility does not prevent people from making mistakes in an organization; it is quite the opposite. On the other hand, Agility allows to rapidly and regularly highlight mistakes. And, above all, it gives people the opportunity to learn from these errors and improve themselves. In summary: quickly make mistakes and learn fast.

Nevertheless, there are many organizations where there is no room for error, and this leads to harmful behaviours from individuals; thus, reducing the organizations’ value sources. Mistakes are so unacceptable and frowned upon that when one is made—and it’s a certainty that errors will happen—here is what we note:

  • A lot of energy is spent to hide the error instead of accepting it.
  • We urge to hide an error rather than trying to correct it and learn from it.
  • The problem will resurface later, and it will then be more difficult to resolve than it would have been if corrected right away.

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In that type of environment, here are the behaviours we unfortunately observe:

  • Stress that results from our errors, knowing that they will inevitably occur
  • Shame of having to face our errors accusingly or in a non-constructive manner
  • Loss of confidence when thinking that our errors mean that we lack competence, professionalism, etc.
  • Inaction because we are afraid to act differently and to be wrong
  • Blame from others when we make a mistake.

In these contexts, the notion of room for error is interesting from the prism of managers and senior management. In fact, in organizations, most managers and executives do not grant themselves the right to make mistakes in order to maintain a certain “illusion of power”. As though, at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, mistakes were forbidden to preserve one’s legitimacy and credibility. Though, it could be interesting to help them realize what it could mean to dispel this “illusion of power” and see the impact it could have on teams and individuals. There may be radical changes in the way teams regard managers and executives if they are more transparent about their doubts, errors, and lessons learned from their mistakes.

In conclusion, if you have the opportunity, I invite you to experience granting the right to make mistakes in your organization, with all the kindness and openness that you have to offer. The outcome may be amazing at all levels.

Finally, maybe you did not like this post, maybe you found it irrelevant. In that case, here is an opportunity for you to test your ability to grant the right to make mistakes. 😉

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Thomas Gibot

Scrum Master at Pyxis Switzerland, Thomas plunged into Agility in 2010 and continues to evolve using Agile approaches with passion and ever-increasing appreciation.

Eager to help everyone with their development in a climate of trust, creativity, and excellence, he takes great pleasure in supporting teams with the adoption and implementation of Scrum. He particularly enjoys the moments of exchange with teams as well as facilitation and support provided to them as a Scrum Master.

In short, Thomas gives great importance to people and everything that allows their development within a Scrum team.

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