Safety first


Google’s Project Aristotle spent a bunch of time trying to figure out what made some teams perform better than others, and in the end they identified psychological safety as the primary factor[1]. It’s why one of the guiding principles to Modern Agile is ‘Make Safety a Prerequisite’.

The concept of safety comes up in Adrian Cockcroft’s comment on innovation culture that I referenced in my Wage Slaves post:

Here’s an analogy: just about everyone knows how to drive on the street, but if you take your team to a racetrack, sit them in a supercar and tell them to go as fast as they like, you’ll get three outcomes.

  1. Some people will be petrified, drive slowly, white knuckles on the steering wheel, and want to get back to driving on the street. Those are the developers that should stay in a high process, low risk culture.
  2. Some people will take off wildly at high speed and crash on the first corner. They also need process and structure to operate safely.
  3. The people that thrive in a high performance culture will take it easy for the first few laps to learn the track, gradually speed up, put a wheel off the track now and again as they push the limits, and enjoy the experience.

Numbering added by me for easier referencing

This unpacks to being about risk appetite and approach to learning, and it’s all a bit Goldilocks and the three bears:

  1. The risk appetite of the go slow racer is too cold, which means that they don’t create opportunities for learning.
  2. The risk appetite of the crash and burn racer is too hot, they too don’t create opportunities for learning.
  3. The risk appetite of the progressive racer is just right. They create a series of learning opportunities as they explore the limits of the car, the track and their skill.

This is where I think I’m going to diverge from Adrian’s view, and I’m somewhat taking what he says at face value, so there will inevitably be nuance that I’ve missed… I read Adrian as saying that forward leaning companies (like Netflix and Amazon) will set up their hiring, retention and development to favour type 3 people – the ‘natural’ racers.

I have a problem with that, because ‘natural’ talent is mostly a myth. If I think back to my own first track day (thanks Borland) I’d have been picked out as a type 2. I don’t know how many times I spun that VX220 out backwards from a corner on the West track at Bedford Autodrome, but it was a lot, and the (very scared looking) instructor would surely have said that I wasn’t learning (at least not quickly enough).

I returned to the same track(s) a few years later and had a completely different experience. The lessons from the first day had sunk in, I’d altered the way I drove on ordinary roads, I’d bought a sports car and learned to be careful with it, I’d spent time playing racing games on PCs and consoles. Second time out I’d clearly become a type 3 – maybe not the fastest on the track, but able to improve from one lap to the next, and certainly not a danger to myself and others.

So it seems that the easy path here is pick out the type 3s; but there’s another approach that involves getting the type 1s to take on more risk, and getting the type 2s to rein it in a little. Both of these activities happen away from the track, in a safer environment – the classroom and video games (or their equivalents) that let people explore their risk envelope and learning opportunities without threat to actual life or limb; somewhere that the marginal cost of making mistakes is low[2].

The story doesn’t end there. Once we have our type 3s (either by finding them or converting them) there’s still plenty that can be done for safety, and the racing world is a rich source for analogy. Bedford Autodrome is reputed to be one of the safest circuits in the world. It’s been purpose designed for teaching people to race rather than to be used as a venue for high profile competitions. Everywhere that you’re likely to spin out has been designed so that you won’t crash into things, or take off and crash land or whatever. So we can do things to the environment that ensure that a mistake is a learning experience and not a life ending, property destroying tragedy.

Some though should also be given to the vehicles we drive and the protective clothing we wear. Nomex suits, crash helmets, tyre tethers, roll over bars – there have been countless improvements in racing safety over the years. When I watched F1 back in the days of James Hunt it felt like every race was a life or death experience. We lost Aytron Senna, and Niki Lauda still wears the scars from his brush with death; it’s much better that I can watch Lewis Hamilton take on Sebastian Vettel pretty sure that everybody will still be alive and uninjured as the checkered flag gets waved. It’s the same with software, as agile methodologies, test driven development (TDD), chaos engineering and continuous integration/delivery (CI/CD) have converged on bringing us software that’s less likely to crash, and crashes that are less likely to injure. It’s generally easier to be safer if we use the right ‘equipment’.

This connects into the wider DevOps arc because the third DevOps way is continuous learning by experimentation. Learning organisations need to be places where people can take risk, and most people will only take risk when they feel safe. There may be some people out there who are ‘naturals’ at calibrating their approach to risk and learning from taking risks, but I expect that most people who seem to be ‘naturals’ are actually people who’ve found a safe environment to learn. So if we want learning organisations we must create safe organisations, and do everything we can to change the environment and ‘equipment’ to make that so.


[1] For more on Aristotle and its outcome check out Matt Sakaguchi’s QCon presentation ‘What Google Learned about Creating Effective Teams‘ and/or the interview he did with Shane Hastie on the ‘Key to High Performing Teams at Google‘.
[2] This is a huge topic in its own right, so I’ll cover it in a future post.

2 Responses to “Safety first”

  1. Very nice, thanks for sharing. Nice to know you’re a car guy and racer too 😊

    Below, agree with. Also believe the “Naturals” have had good mentors (Safe zones as you state, learn from mistake, less emotion, trust), but have also learned to learn from others, and mastered the ability to apply it to their strengths…not their weakness… calibrating as you state…

    Once people realize they are competing with themselves, not others, everything changes…

    There may be some people out there who are ‘naturals’ at calibrating their approach to risk and learning from taking risks, but I expect that most people who seem to be ‘naturals’ are actually people who’ve found a safe environment to learn

  2. Nice summary, just one comment: Netflix is a small company focused on hiring senior “fully formed adults”. They don’t try to change their people as much. Amazon and other big companies put more focus on developing more junior staff.

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