I foresee a decade-long skirmish about psychological safety among friends, colleagues, co-workers, and strangers in and around that little part of the software development world that we generally think of as “Agile”. I can already imagine how it will likely progress. I’ve already started grieving the loss of “psychological safety” as a useful term of art in the software development world. I hope to get over it soon.
Let me clarify what I mean: I value the concept of psychological safety; I’ve already been promoting and teaching something like it for years; I fully expect the term psychological safety to follow the same progression that “agile software development” followed before it. Fortunately, my experience helps me feel better prepared for the upcoming nonsense than I felt when I started going through it the first time around 2001, first with Extreme Programming, later with test-driven development, and then eventually with agile software development in general. I expect to see events happen in something like the following sequence.
- Many well-meaning people in the software development community start advocating directly for psychological safety as a routine part of helping organizations improve their results. Previously, many of them had been intuitively doing some things in their work that had (directly or indirectly) helped their clients achieve some measure of increased psychological safety.
- Enthusiastic early adopters enjoy some success at expanding the regions of strong psychological safety within their project communities.
- These early adopters join the aforementioned well-meaning people in further advocating openly for psychological safety as a routine part of helping organizations improve their results. We see them present these ideas at conferences.
- Presenting these ideas at conferences creates additional momentum, spreading the idea farther and wider. This leads to additional enthusiastic early adopters enjoying success. This creates an amplifying feedback loop for a while.
- Seeing an opportunity both for their clients and themselves, some well-meaning freelancers begin placing the words psychological safety nearer the front of their advertising messages. They encourage their existing markets to look into the concept as a way to enhance their efforts to improve continuously. (As of late 2019, I am here.) This open advertising creates an amplifying feedback loop for a while, as more clients recognize the value of training and consulting related directly to psychological safety and more freelancers recognize the value of putting psychological safety nearer the front of their advertising messages.
- Seeing that other companies are hiring people to train them and consult with them in Psychological Safety—by now in capital letters to emphasize the emergence of a brand—companies begin scrambling to find competent people to train them and consult with them in Psychological Safety. This creates scarcity, since demand increases more rapidly than supply.
- Seeing an opportunity for themselves, more well-meaning freelancers, many less-well-meaning freelancers, and several training companies begin furiously figuring out how to teach something that they can reasonably sell as “Introduction to Psychological Safety”. Some companies, not knowing whom to trust and needing to lower costs, hire these less-well-meaning freelancers and training companies to teach “Psychological Safety”—by this time now both in capital letters and “scare” quotation marks. Some vendors outright steal tables of contents and course outlines from established and trusted consultants and trainers.
- As more companies hire a variety of vendors to train them and consult with them about psychological safety or Psychological Safety or “Psychological Safety”, their respective results strongly diverge. Some clients succeed, others tread water, and still others fail spectacularly. The level of success doesn’t correlate perfectly with the abilities and intentions of the vendors who trained them, so the market generally doesn’t realize whether they’ve received “good” training or “bad” training while the vendors don’t realize whether they’ve provided “good” training or “bad” training.
- The vendors largely blame “bad” results on “not trying hard enough” and the clients largely blame “bad” results on “the idea doesn’t work”. This creates mass confusion within the industry. People write compelling articles detailing their bad experiences of “Psychological Safety”, painting the picture of a Victorian debtor’s prison, all the while calling it psychological safety. People write compelling articles detailing their wonderful and transformational experiences of psychological safety (or even Psychological Safety, but probably not “Psychological Safety”), painting the picture of a Victorian science fiction writer’s utopic view of the future. Some people write articles detailing their struggle to increase psychological safety both at home and at their jobs, describing steps forward and steps backward, painting a picture of the everyday lives of ordinary modern humans. Most people find these last articles significantly less compelling.
- People take to social media and vigorously debate the effectiveness of psychological safety not realizing that some of them are talking about psychological safety, some about Psychological Safety, and still others about “Psychological Safety”. There is much finger-pointing and defensiveness and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At some point, one clever person coins the phrase “The Psychological Safety-Industrial Complex” and blames it for everything.
- Memes. So many memes. Enough with the memes!
- Certified Psychological Safety Practitioner. Certified Psychological Safety Trainer. No, really: our certification means something!
- Gradually, quietly, the software development world becomes generally bored with psychological safety, Psychological Safety, and “Psychological Safety”. Most of the organizations that could adopt it effectively will have done so; most of the organizations that could not adopt it effectively will have long-since given it up.
- Sensing that the market has shifted, the opportunistic vendors move on to other topics.
- The remaining vendors split into four camps: the first vigorously declares the Psychological Safety experiment a failure and promotes Post-Psychological Safety (or Psychological Post-Safety—I don’t know which one sounds less silly), the second vigorously declares the first group wrong and insists on both the effectiveness and the value of psychological safety when practised correctly, the third continues to promote psychological safety while calling it by some alternatively-branded name, while the last quietly incorporates psychological safety into their other consulting work as one would hide medicine in a bit of food to feed to a beloved pet.
I have started working to accept that this will all happen, approximately in this sequence, between now and some time in the early 2030s. By then I will be approaching 60 years old. I will sit in a rocking chair in the corner, bemused and a bit tired, but still ready—eager, even—to help you perform your job with better results and with less stress. Warning: my help will probably involve some stealth psychological safety work. And probably some evolutionary design training. I don’t think we’ll have delegated writing code to expert systems even by then.