When Fear of Failure Strikes

“Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure” – Jack Lemmon

I had an interesting coaching moment with a scrum master today. He came to me with a dilemma he had for his present team. He has a new team that has a new senior developer on it and they are in the process of storming as a team. Given this state of team development, it is only natural that they are in a growth period.

In their prior sprint, the team had a plague of sickness spread across them and they did not meet a significant amount of their sprint commitment due to the unexpected loss in capacity. This significantly concerned them as when they reviewed their product at sprint’s end, the stakeholders who attended did not seem to understand what the idea of “undone work” was nor how it was typically handled by the team.

The product owner managed the stakeholders relationship well and explained how the undone work would roll forward to the next sprint as the highest priority (given that was still the case) and be addressed by the team. But the team became very worried about the perceptions of the stakeholders. Fear of failure had reared its head within the team.

The scrum master, being conscientious about this engaged the team as based on some severe inclement weather had forced them to see the possibility of a failed sprint looming again. The team had asked, maybe we should change the process to only demo those features to the stakeholder that actually work. Being a relatively new scrum master, he wanted to explore this with me to help guide them. He came and met with me and told me what the team had suggested and admitted he felt uneasy about this change but wanted additional guidance. Instead of “giving” him an answer, we explored the situation and circumstances surrounding this request once he related the situation of the undone work in the previous sprint and the feeling of dread by the team with their current sprint.

I asked a few questions of him:

“So the team feels confident that they will not complete their commitment”?

“Do you feel this is a reaction to a fear of failure”?

“Do you think the compromise to hide this undone work compromises the agile value of transparency”?

“Is this the first responsible moment to speak with the product owner to indicate the work that will be undone so expectations are set with them rather than surprise”?

These four questions helped him find his own answer. He realized that he did have time within the sprint to engage the product owner and set the expectations of him and in doing so release the pressure of the team without finding some method to place transparency to the users into the shadows. He determine he could help the new team more by helping them understand that failure is opportunity, not a point of suspicion, ridicule and derision. He found a solution within his own problem by thinking through his problem so he could help his team do the same.

As a result, he engaged the product owner to indicate to them the work that may be undone so that they could discuss this with the team, ensure that the items worked on were the highest valued among the undone work (which they were) and kept the issue of fear of failure as a point of opportunity as opposed to the crushing blow of defeat. He helped them find relief and refocus on the things in progress without continuing to worry about the items that they knew they might not achieve.

In the end, they completed their commitment as it was the fear of failure to the stakeholders that made them concerned not the reality of doing so. They were so caught up in not appearing to be failing that they saw the loss of capacity as a reason to react. He guided them to understand this principle as well as one of the “first responsible moment” so that they could create transparency and strengthen the openness and relationship with their product owner. He turned this situation born of fear into one of working more closely together to succeed.

And he did so by just stopping to consider a few questions to allow himself to explore the possibilities. Fear of failure is a real thing with teams, especially teams that are allowed to select work within capacity to deliver as they feel they are driving the work. But failure is an opportunity to learn (although I know many executives who may not agree).

But through inspection of the underlying reasons behind this fear we can often find ways to gain clarity and help shape it into a learning point and create stronger relationships and stronger teams.

We all fear failing. But it does happen and often as a result of things far beyond our control or sometimes when we are doing everything right. So when this happens, it’s easy to just react based on this but the more challenging thing is to examine the fear and determine if our failings can be something that makes us better moving forward.

 

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