Tag Archives: making mistakes

Can agile principles help us become anti-racist?


Like many people, I’ve been a sponge lately, taking in amazing books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, listening to fantastic podcasts like How Core Values Influence Diversity and Inclusion with Kim Crayton, and reading mind-blowing articles like What is Owed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now is a time for me to learn, and I’ve got years of work to do before I can claim to have gotten past the tip of the iceberg.

But I don’t have years, weeks, or even days to read, listen to, and process all of this information before taking action. I have a job to do, and a team demanding that I use my position to make positive change now. Yes, this is a time to learn, but it’s also a time to act. We’ve been patient – even with ourselves – for too long.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a terrible time to make mistakes. The stakes are high and scrutiny has never been greater. On the positive side, we’re all being held accountable for our words and actions, as we should be. On the negative side, we’re also demanding that people take risks, and mistakes can be costly.

So it seems like we need to listen, learn, and take action, and we need to do it without making mistakes. But how?

Unfortunately, we’re going to make mistakes

Unless our plan is to learn everything before we do anything, we will fail, at least occasionally. The issues we face related to racial injustice have been deeply ingrained in our society for hundreds of years, and in order for us to make things better, we’re going to have to have hard conversations and take risks. And what are the odds we’ll get it right every single time? Not very good.

If our goal is to make things better, and to do it quickly, we need a structure that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them iteratively. And here’s where I turn to the agile principle of failing fast. In agile development, when we talk about failing fast, we assume that failure is inevitable, at least some of the time. And if failure is inevitable, then the faster we do it, the faster we learn and improve. According to Ben Rossi in Information Age:

In software development, the point about “fail fast” is that if a failure is going to take place you want to reduce the time lag in a) detecting the failure, and b) relaying the detection back to the responsible developer. 

What would it mean to apply this concept to our interactions with others, to our discussions about racial injustice? If we all agreed that “detecting the failure” was step one, then we’d expect it, and we’d be grateful when it happened quickly so we could move on to step two, “relaying the detection back.” For example, if our organization unintentionally supported the wrong charity, or made well intentioned hires without supporting them well, or changed HR policies that singled people out instead of bringing them together, we could identify these errors and fix them. If we could do this without fear or judgement, imagine how quickly we’d learn and improve.

Of course, this would require that we all acknowledged up front that we’re going to make mistakes, and that this is as important as it is inevitable. We’d have to trust each other, assume positive intent, and agree not to blame or judge each other when we fail. We’d need to speak freely, without fear of unintended consequences, and we’d need to listen openly, giving others the benefit of the doubt. This sounds hard, but I think it’s possible.

Embracing the agile concept of failing fast

At the start of this post, I said what we needed to do was clear: listen, learn, and take action without making mistakes. But what if we acknowledged that mistakes will be made and leveraged a process – like agile – that helped us fail fast, correct our behavior, and learn? What if we were willing to be wrong without being defensive?

As we work towards social justice and equality, we need to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, make mistakes. And while agile philosophy may not be the silver bullet that makes us anti-racist, I do think it might offer us a viable way forward. If we embrace the concept of failing fast and use it as a way to learn, understand, and improve over time, we’ll be better able to meet the needs of each other and our teams over time. And that’s a start.

Think like a boss

James GandolfiniMy team does Product development for 16 websites on 2 different platforms. We create roadmaps and prioritize work across more than 6 teams. We generate lots of new projects, and we have a process for vetting new ideas that come from all across the company. We work cross-functionally, with multiple technology and business teams. And we own our products from soup to nuts, development to support, build to run.

Each month, we prioritize new requests with the guidance of our senior executives, which means we tell them what our priorities are and they tell us if they disagree. Since we know the customers, the work required, the risk involved, the business value, and the product roadmaps better than anyone, we know what work needs to happen. Do our Execs weigh in? Absolutely. Do they have different opinions than ours? Occasionally. Do they change our priorities? Rarely.

Having strong, well-reasoned opinions about what work should be prioritized, delivering on our commitments, and showing real business value has helped our team gain the trust and confidence of our Executive leadership. They expect us to be the experts, and we respond by acting like it.

You probably know a lot more than your boss

In 95% of the work situations you will ever find yourself in, your boss doesn’t know any more than you do. In 75% of those situations, you know more than your boss does. In 50% of those situations, you know much, much more. I’m making up the numbers, but you get the idea.

And yet, many employees feel completely unable to make a decision without their boss’s input. Why?

We don’t want to make mistakes

For lots of people, it’s natural to avoid making decisions, just as it’s natural to avoid taking responsibility. Making decisions is scary, because it means being wrong a lot. I worked at a small company where the CEO ruled by fear, where being wrong was something to avoid at all costs. I didn’t last there very long.

At a company where employees are punished for being wrong, the best employees will leave or be fired (as I was). Those who stay are those who are good at playing the game – avoiding responsibility, asking their boss to make decisions for them. Are those the people you want to work with?

We’ve forgotten how to make decisions

Have you ever heard the comment “those decisions are made above my pay grade”? Those are the words of someone who lacks ideas, conviction, or confidence.

There can be good reasons for this kind of thinking. Command-and-control-based companies train employees that different decisions are made at different levels, and that there’s no upside to disagreeing with your boss. If your company’s beating you down, it might be time to find another one.

My old boss used to say “an opinion’s worth 50 IQ points.” At least.

We want help

Maybe the issue is simply a desire to get help, or to have a sounding board. This is totally valid – and very healthy. Help is important, and we could all use a little bit once in a while. I know I can.

We need more information

Sometimes we need more information to make a solid decision – there are times when my boss has a critical piece of information, and I’d be foolish not to ask for it. It comes down to this:

  • If you’re not making a decision because you need more information or want some help, that’s a good thing.
  • If you’re not making a decision because you lack the confidence or conviction to get it done, that’s less good.

The trick is to know the difference.

Creating the culture we want

As leaders, we need to figure out what we value in our employees and co-workers, and then create a culture that supports our values. If we value confidence, creativity, leadership, and risk-taking, we need to:

  • Empower our people to make decisions
  • Encourage risk taking
  • Seek out contrasting points of view
  • Promote healthy debate
  • Outlaw terms like “this decision is made above my pay grade”
  • Ask questions

Most importantly, we need to expect people to make mistakes, and we need to let them know it’s okay – in our actions and in our words. Then we need to remind them, over and over again. We need to believe that making mistakes is a critical part of becoming a better team and company. And we need to be willing to make some of our own.