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Leveraging psychological safety to ship business value

Victor Wu

I had the privilege of interviewing Tim Pratley earlier this year prior to him joining Clubhouse as our Backend Engineering Manager. He said, "Engineers should be afforded safety and trust in order to take risks in their work, thus leading to better business outcomes." I was struck by this insight and wanted to explore more on this topic here.

An outdated model

The traditional wisdom of running companies is that a management style of command and control will lead to profits since individual employees should work as cogs in the machine according to the directives of upper management. The argument is that any form of positive social or psychological impact on individuals would only be at the trade-off of company financial goals. But this is simply false, at least in the world of software, where the market is extremely competitive and fast-paced, since the capital costs of innovation (shipping bits) are relatively low, compared to other industries, such as hardware, where the capital costs are higher. Dr. Nicole Forsgren, CEO of DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA, acquired by Google last year) demonstrates with empirical evidence that high performing teams (who deliver strong business outcomes) are highly correlated with organizational cultures that have low rates of burnout and that embody trust.

From developer productivity to psychological safety

As enterprise software development continues to mature as an engineering discipline, the trend is to commoditize repetitive and error-prone tasks with off-the-shelf applications and technologies more broadly, so that software engineers can focus on differentiated work, which is shipping customer value as part of their company's core business. This means that a software engineer should not be struggling with CI/CD tools or source control or any other general infrastructure needs. A very small team of infrastructure/tool-focused engineers should be leveraging existing technologies to support the larger software engineering organization. In the ideal case, the software team can even manage the tools on their own with little overhead.

In traditional organizations, an engineer may take a more risk-averse approach and work on precisely only what they are told, and definitely not do anything beyond their well-defined scope of work. But in an organization with a stable CI/CD environment with a strong culture of testing automation, software engineers will move quickly to complete not only "assigned work", but also experiment with new innovations, along with their peers in Product and Design. The developer productivity infrastructure actually becomes a safety harness because the chances of shipping something broken is radically reduced. This even expands to product risks since A/B testing or feature flagging tools can automatically and/or quickly revert a change if business outcomes (e.g. conversion rate) are negatively impacted. Catastrophic negative outcomes are less likely to occur, and people are less prone to blame one another for any remaining possible failures.

At Clubhouse, one of our values is Treat people right. We strive to live out this value even in the worst of circumstances. But it definitely does help if our supporting infrastructure minimizes the opportunities for any finger-pointing to happen. In essence, our developer productivity investments lead to improving psychological safety.

More broadly, this results in a culture of experimentation, which in the fast-paced world of software products, is critical for business success. At Clubhouse, another one of our values is Move fast, embodying our bias toward calculated risk-taking, experimentation, and not waiting for permission.

Transparency builds trust

Traditional organizations have many silos of isolated teams and work artifacts. Beyond just the inefficient communications this causes, it creates distrust within a company, since humans are inherently curious, and if they don't see something, they may think of the worst of something.

At Clubhouse, one of our values is Be transparent. We make all of our work and communications internally public by default. We use Clubhouse heavily to organize ideas and communicate asynchronously (especially since we are partially remote), and we also record as many video calls as possible to share with folks who may not be able to attend or are just curious and want to collaborate after the fact. Transparency is a strong signal of trust. It tells people that "I have nothing to hide", and that I am actually inviting you to collaborate with me. Even though not everyone in the organization can reasonably review all communications, especially in different departments, the fact that everyone knows they are available, is a cognitive relief. Perception and their consequent feelings do matter.

On the engineering side, folks are empowered and encouraged to speak openly about technical problems such as bugs and production incidents. Instead of blaming individuals, the team as a whole comes together to take responsibility for improving processes and tools.

Better business outcomes

Psychological safety and trust are noble aspirations in and of themselves. But it turns out that you can have your cake and eat it too. They are actually strategic organizational goals to create business outcomes. We are building Clubhouse the company and the product in this very vein. (See Andrew Childs, our Chief Design Officer, and Co-founder, describing The Clubhouse Belief System.) We believe that if you use Clubhouse, it will make it easier for you to achieve these same goals too. But if you don't, please consider first your company values, and how you can leverage them to drive your business forward.

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