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The Importance of Psychological Safety for Agile Transformations in Africa

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The absence of psychological safety in the world of work limits the agile transformation journeys of organisations in Africa. Psychological safety is an enabler, not an act of weakness. Organisations that do not understand or foster it might find it difficult to survive in these VUCA times.

Eliana Philip-Amulum, an enterprise agile people coach, spoke about the role of psychological safety in agile transformations at the Agile Consortium Belgium 2021 conference.

There are several challenges that come with agile adoption in Africa. C-suite leaders have not accepted the change, which makes it difficult; they like the concept but are not ready to adopt the values and principles of Agile, Philip-Amulum said. She also mentioned that culture and some of the traditional values frustrate the adoption of agile in the workplace:

The disengaged / sycophant employees feel that the adoption of agile might reveal their negligence towards their job/task and try to frustrate the agile adoption.

Psychological safety is the absence of fear, the ability to take risks and experiment with new things/ideas, freedom to share ideas and challenge ideas, Philip-Amulum explained. It will enact the values and principles of agile which will lead to agile transformation.

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, "Psychological safety is the lubricating oil of human interaction in any social setting – to unleash the potential of individuals and organizations". Philip-Amulum used the metaphor of the courage a surfer has when he/she is surfing through the waves of the ocean:

  • The courage is psychological safety
  • Surfing through the wave is agile transformation
  • The wave is VUCA, New/ Advance Technology, Customers demand, etc.

Africans have strong traditional values like respect for elders/superiors (do not challenge the words of an elder/superior) which can hinder psychological safety at the workplace. Still, change is possible, as Philip-Amulum explained:

Sometimes it seems impossible, but my Christian values/principles assure me that nothing is impossible. Some people say it is impossible to change a person but I know it is possible. It’s just that "the catalyst" for that change has not yet arrived. An example of the catalyst is the pandemic that has brought change to the world of work and increased remote working.

Organisations don’t have to wait for "the catalyst" before they change, especially when the values and principles will lead to agile transformation, Philip-Amulum concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Eliana Philip-Amulum about the challenges in agile adoption in Africa and the role that psychological safety plays in it.

InfoQ: How do the challenges in agile adoption impact the success of agile and the benefits that agile can bring?

Eliana Philip-Amulum: It has a negative effect. It gradually paralyses performance, innovation and of course, there is little or no journey to agile transformation.

An example is an organisation I worked for; the employees were excited about the change from waterfall to agile after HR had organised some free Agile workshops before the adoption. They were delighted to have an environment where they could share ideas and see their ideas materialize into apps/products (and not the ideas of senior management); a workplace where senior management employees would no longer disrupt product development, long meetings would be reduced/cancelled, less reporting would be required, and a cross-functional team would be created which would increase communication and collaboration between the business development team and the developers. All these and more made the employees embrace the adoption of agile and were looking forward to the benefits of adoption in product development.

Unfortunately, team empowerment did not happen; management lacked trust in the teams. The leaders did not fully accept the values and principles of agile, and of course, there was an absence of psychological safety. Due to the command and control style of leadership, the employees did not have a voice and only very few could challenge the status quo of management.

Within one year of the agile adoption, the attrition rate of employees was over 20 percent higher than in the last five years of pre-agile adoption in the organisation.

InfoQ: What can be done to foster psychological safety?

Philip-Amulum: There needs to be some sort of orientation for leaders and HR before "Hurricane VUCA" comes knocking hard. I mapped out a plan for scrum masters, product owners and their team, and facilitated workshops for scrum masters.

The enterprise agile coach should first assess the level of psychological safety in the organisation through the assessment of the root cause(s). He/she should facilitate workshops for leaders on topics that can foster psychological safety, e.g self-management, emotional intelligence, etc. These workshops and coaching sessions are not just for the leadership team, but the entire team in the organisation. It’s best to stir the minds of the leaders so they can influence the people in the organisation. Regarding work, Google has a tool to foster psychological safety that managers can use and customise in their team.

In her book Fearless Organisation, Army Edmondson shares a Leader´s Tool Kit for building psychological safety:

1. Setting the Stage- As a leader, you set some expectations about interdependencies, uncertainties, failures, mistakes and explain the need for employees to have a voice in the organisation. Identify the challenge and explain why and who it matters to.

2. Inviting Participation- Acknowledge the gaps, ask questions, ensure active listening, avoid interruptions and create a forum for input. Help build confidence that employees’ voices are allowed and important for the organisation.

3. Respond Productively- Express commendation and appreciation. Welcome mistakes, and failure, and learn by discussing and brainstorming on the subject matter. Offer help and look forward to helping. Leaders must exhibit a humble mindset.

I tried the Leader’s Tool Kit at the team level and found that it works; we just need to give teams continuous feedback on the milestones they created for themselves. The challenge I faced was with the leaders; the c-suite level was not ready to change their style of leadership. When I resigned, there was a reversal in feelings of safety which led to the high attrition rate of the employees that I mentioned.

The Psychological Safety Game from Agile People can also help foster psychological safety in the workplace amongst agile teams. It is a continuous process that can take years to achieve, so we must remain positive to accomplish it.

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