AA, Agile, and Psychological Safety: System 3 as Antifragile
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is fascinating on many fronts, but this last summer, as I was doing some extensive research on meetings and other purposeful conversations, I noticed something about AA that had never occurred to me before.
I had been thinking about the complex of problems that drive all kinds of dysfunction in the meetings people have at work. I had seen throughout my career, in a wide variety of contexts, how facilitation and skilled leadership can make possible radically different kinds of experiences and outcomes compared to what most people experience in their mundane workaday meeting lives.
Thinking about whether it might be possible to codify the things that skilled facilitators and talented leaders do, I started to think of all the examples I knew of or had heard about where meeting culture became predictably and reliably positive in its effects.
A is for Agile
It was when I was leading a software platform team within an innovation unit in the US Department of Defense that I first experienced Agile directly. I had heard and read a lot about this way of running software development teams. But the direct experience was a game changer. There’s a wide spectrum in Agile thinking, methods and practice, but there are some fairly stable elements, too; in particular, the design and structure of the meetings that occur throughout development “sprints” (typically 2–3 week periods of well defined goal-driven work).
What most struck me on the team I led was the meeting that concluded each sprint, called a “Retro” (a review meeting that retrospectively compares plans and goals to experiences and outcomes). Retros began with a ritualized opener in which the scrum master (the lead facilitator of the sprint process) reminds everyone of the ethic of Retro: an explicit acknowledgement that while we all tried our best, that we can always do better and that that we can be candid, honest and kind in our feedback.
The ethos of constant and continuous learning is at the core of Agile as a process. It can be radical in its effect. The effective learning discipline is what leads many to try to emulate and adopt Agile, even beyond the software development context from which it originally emerged.
The more and deeper my experience of Retro the more I realized how this particular meeting was not only facilitating the on-going learning and improvement of the team’s work and its delivery, but that it also constantly reinforced and deepened the culture of learning that was making us all better individually and collectively over the longer term.
As I reflected on the norms and tone set in Retro I realized something else, that it was an engine for creating psychological safety on the team. Psychological safety, as described by Amy C. Edmonson, is an environmental condition that enables people to operate honestly, openly and critically without fear of reprisal, censure or punishment. There are numerous approaches to creating a psychologically safe work environment, and what I learned working on an Agile team is that the norms, values, rituals and structure of Agile are one path to creating and sustaining a psychologically safe work environment in software development.
AA is for System of Safety
During this same period I was invited, several different times, to attend the regular AA meeting of someone close to me. I’d heard and read plenty about AA too, and while I thought I understood the gist of it, attending meetings wasn’t just eye opening, it was mind blowing.
AA is fascinating as a system, because while it is a global organization of peers and volunteers whose members number in the 10s, perhaps even hundreds, of millions, it is made up of a relative small number of fixed “components” and structures. The core doctrine of AA is contained in what people refer to as the Big Book, which, among other things sets out its famous 12 steps.
What happens, I think, during AA meetings is that people form and activate and sense a deep connection to each other. That connection makes it possible for people to do something that they feel unable to do in almost any other context in their lives: to overcome their sense of shame enough to be honest with themselves and with others. That connection is made possible by a system that the members of a meeting activate together. That system is what AA people are talking about when they say to each other, about AA, “it works if you work it.” It’s is why they “keep coming back.”
AA as a system offers people access to an “antidote” to alcoholism; not a “cure” for their chemical dependency, but an inoculation against the illness. AA creates connection for those who have come to feel disconnected and estranged. How do I know I am right about this? I don’t, and I expect that the folks who go to AA are the only ones who fully know the truth of it. But I suspect that the powerful technology activated by people who go to AA, who, in fact, are AA, is System 3.
System 3 as Antifragile
Thinking about Agile and AA led me to wonder whether psychological safety was valuable precisely as a tool for creating conditions that Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as “antifragile.” In a fascinating conversation between Taleb and Daniel Kahneman at the New York Public Library in 2013, Taleb called out the airline transportation safety establishment as a paradigmaticly antifragile system. Taleb ask the rhetorical question, “Why?: to which he gave the answer, because “every plane crash that has happened has made the next plane ride safer.” This is an example of a system that never “let’s a mistake go to waste.”
In Amy C. Edmonson’s seminal work, presented in her book The Fearless Organization, she uses the healthcare system as a negative example of psychological safety and the aviation industry as a positive one. Edmonson discusses the case of US Airways Flight 1549, in which an aircraft just leaving LaGuardia airport in New York had been disabled by bird strikes to both its engines. The conduct of Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger and the crew of Flight 1549 is held up as a perfect example of what conditions of psychological safety make possible: high performance in conditions of high stress and uncertainty. This is dramatically illustrated by the safe landing of the plane barely two minutes into a flight that could have become one of the worst disasters in aviation history, as the aircraft made its ascent over midtown Manhattan.
Of course, the crew of Flight 1549 were part of a larger system that included US Airlines, the Federal Aviation Association and the Nation Transportation Safety Board. It is this system as a whole that produces the psychological safety that the crew both relied on and activated during the emergency conditions of Flight 1549 on 15 January, 2009. What makes such systems particularly valuable, as Taleb points out, is their antifragility: which means that the system becomes stronger the more it is tested, stressed and learns from unexpected and unplanned events.
What both Edmonson and Taleb help us understand is that what I am calling System 3 is made possible when collectives act together in reliable and systemic ways. It is our ability to think and act together in highly attuned ways that is at work when flight crews face emergencies, when special forces teams adapt to uncertainty in the most stressful and risky conditions, and which also explains the sustainable creativity and adaptability in companies like Apple and Pixar. These are systems that have created ways to use stress, uncertainty and adversity to make themselves stronger and better by creating conditions that allow people to take bigger, more ambitious risks: these systems do not make us fearless, but enable us to act fearlessly.
In the next few posts I’ll be exploring tools and disciplines that are designed to help activate System 3 and the special relationship between System 3 and risk. As always, I look forward to your ideas, comments and input as I continue to explore the terrain of System 3.