Psychological Safety #48: Mining for Root Causes

Training, Workshops, Exercises and Tools

Psychological Safety #48: Mining for Root Causes

alternative worlds practice

Welcome to the psychological safety newsletter and thanks for subscribing. You are amazing 🙂 

This week is heavily focussed on technology and software delivery, with a piece from John Allspaw on Root Causes, and articles and resources from Stack Overflow, GitHub, GitLab, Spotify, Kanbans, Team Topologies, & Red Hat. Plus the Rio Tinto report, efficacy of mobile phone apps for mental health, and a fab article about roofing.If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks and/or forward it to other people who may appreciate it.

This newsletter is sponsored by Conflux.

Conflux is the leading business consultancy worldwide helping organisations to navigate fast flow in software. We help organisations to adopt and sustain proven, modern practices for delivering software rapidly and safely.

Here at Conflux we’ve been reading Edgar Schein’s book ‘Humble Inquiry’ and learning how we can create positive relationships and foster psychological safety by being curious and humble, and by asking open questions. Sophie Weston, Principal at Conflux, has put together some key takeaways from the book in this article.

A little request for help: I’m planning a website refresh over the next few months, and if you have any suggestions for improvements, please let me know by replying to this email 🙂 

Psychological Safety In the Workplace:

John Allspaw of Adaptive Capacity Labs is one of the great minds in the tech world on sociotechnicality and complexity, and he’s just published this blog at titled “What we talk about when we talk about ‘root cause’”. I love the point he makes about our human desire to search for a root cause that provides us with a comfort that we understand the non-understandable, that we remain in control of something that we’re not actually in control of. This is “Nietzschean anxiety”, and what John Carroll called “root cause seduction.” John (Allspaw) offers a few questions to consider the next time you hear the term “root cause”:

  • What is the author (or speaker) trying to convey by using the term?
  • What agenda(s) might the author (or speaker) have in their version of the story, other than providing the richest description they can?
  • What elsecan you imagine is influencing the outcome of the story being told, besides what is deemed the ‘root cause’?
  • What details seem to be noticeably absent in the story you’re being told?
  • What questions can you imagine being dismissed or discounted by the storyteller, if you had the chance to ask them?

These are excellent points. I believe that a team with greater psychological safety is more likely to investigate and examine the “messy details” of an incident, rather than reach for the root cause comfort blanket that John describes in his article. As John also points out in this tweet, psychological safety (and performance) is boosted by leaders who create an environment where people can share the messy, human aspects of an incident without fear of reprisal.

 Here are two great pieces (!) from Lori Colston at Stack Overflow on psychological safety in high performing teams, and creating a continuous learning culture. These are great articles that highlight the importance of a tolerance for mistakes, space for reflection (i.e. not pushing people to be “productive” 100% of the time) and appreciation of the “micro-moments” of learning.

And this is a super management workbook from GitLab on psychological safety (by Sid Sidbrandij and Stella Treas), including resources on the history and definition of psychological safety, diversity and inclusion, and actual practices for the workplace.

You may be familiar with the now infamous “Spotify Model” of organisational design (squads, chapters, tribes and guilds, etc), which as many will point out, Spotify doesn’t actually use. Jason Yip is a Senior Agile Coach at Spotify, and wrote this excellent piece about the Spotify Engineering Culture, and makes this excellent point in the article: “Trust-at-scale requires acknowledging the humanity of politics and fear.”

The No Parking company work based on Lean tools (kanbans, one-piece-flow, jidoka, kaizen, PDCA, etc.) and especially its values: respect for people, continuous improvement and stability at work. They have a good blog, called “Kanbans”, and this is a fab little piece about how the “Japanese senseis protected the Americans from negative emotional experiences, from fear of failure, and from the negative consequences of failure.

I was searching for something about feedback in code reviews and came across Kareen Badr very rightly pointing out:

 An always acceptable response to this is “no”, if you’re not in a ready state to receive it.

Mathew Skelton and Manuel Pais recently released the Remote Team Interactions Workbook. Based on the ideas from Team Topologies, they introduce useful approaches to clarify and evolve inter-team interactions and communication in a remote-first world. Targeted generally at technology and software delivery teams, the core principles apply equally as well to teams in other domains that need to work together in a distributed fashion. Here’s a summary and introduction to the concept, with links to useful resources and tools. 
Use this link to get 20% off the workbook (this isn’t an affiliate link and I’m not on commission!)

We highlighted service design in a recent newsletter, and here’s an article by Ffion Jones and Jo Carter from Service Works titled “Psychological Safety – what’s it got to do with Service Design?” The article highlights how user research, idea generation, and experimentation all depend crucially on a foundation of psychological safety. 

Psychological Safety Theory, Research and Opinion:

“Employees do not believe that the organisation is psychologically safe, which impacts on their trust in the reporting systems.” Last week, a report into the culture of bullying, harassment and racism at Rio Tinto was released. It paints a disturbing picture where nearly half of all the respondents said they’d experienced bullying, and racism and misogyny was shown to be commonplace in the organisation. Whilst the report is damning, the fact that Rio Tinto published it, and has responded with positive intent to change is encouraging. Time will tell if Rio Tinto actually implement al 26 recommendations in the report.

Mobile phone-based interventions have been proposed as a means for reducing the burden of disease associated with mental illness. In this research – mobile phone-based interventions for mental health: A systematic meta-review of 14 meta-analyses of randomised controlled trialsresearchers failed to find convincing evidence of efficacy, though equally, no evidence of harm or adverse effects. Essentially this suggests that current mobile phone based applications for treating or mitigating the impacts of mental health aren’t that effective, but there is potential in this space for effective applications.

This podcast episode is pretty good – Carlos Valdes-Dapena speaks with Mark Ippolito on humility, vulnerability and leadership, and highlights the power of predictability in psychological safety: “For me, it just comes back to doing what I say I’m going to do.”

And here’s a podcast episode from the CAPC – the Center to Advance Palliative Care – with Stephanie Terauchi, MD, Director of Palliative Care at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, about the necessity of creating an environment free from judgement.

Here’s a good article from an unexpected source – the National Contractors Roofing Association of the USA (NCRA)Amy Staska writes here about how creating a safe workplace goes beyond protecting workers’ physical health, and creating psychological safety won’t just reduce injuries, but it will improve innovation, and make it easier to recruit people into the industry too.

Things to do and try: 

After discussing (and somewhat criticising!) brainstorming last week, here’s a brainstorming practice that I really like: “Alternative Worlds”. This is a well written how-to on the Open Practice Library by Jerry Becker of Red Hat and Graphic Facilitator Ben Tinker, for this practice that takes people outside their usual context, almost like role playing does (but without the awkwardness of actual role playing!). They also dive deeper into the practice, and others, in this episode of the Open Practice Podcast.

This week’s poem:

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


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