Team Safety with the Anonymous Fist to Five method

Dan Hellem

The success of any agile team is built on the shoulders of its individuals and their ability to work as a team. Those individuals need to feel safe to express their ideas and thoughts without other members passing judgement on each other. For every great idea your team has, there are dozens of other ideas that don’t stick. If team members are not in a safe and inclusive environment, those ideas will never be proposed. This stifles team growth and innovation. Having a team culture where individuals feel good about expressing ideas and thoughts is how a high functioning agile team is built and is able to excel.

But how do you know if your team environment is a safe one? Just because a person is quiet does not mean they feel safe. Maybe the individual who dominates the team meeting feels like they have to continuously defend themselves. Let’s be realistic, if you are not on a healthy team, you probably don’t feel safe enough to talk about why it isn’t safe. So how do you gauge on how healthy your team is?

Some of our teams inside Microsoft have started using a method that we’ve been calling the ‘Team Safety Fist to Five’ and we wanted to share this approach.

What is the Fist to Five method?

The Fist to Five method is a long time Agile practice used to help teams come to a consensus on a topic where a decision must be made. Think of it as a democracy for decision making. For the decision at hand, each team member is asked to put up their fist and show of fingers.

  • 1 Finger, you don’t agree

  • 3 Fingers, you are not sure of the decision, but you will go along with the team

  • 5 Fingers, you strongly agree

In a typical Fist to Five session, if anyone is under a 3, the decision does not go through. You then talk it through and vote again until a decision is reached.

Revised for team safety

For Fist to Five to work when assessing team safety, the process needs be revised. First, instead of a decision, you start with the simple question…

“How safe do you feel right now?”

Meaning, how comfortable do you feel about voicing your honest opinion within the confines of the team?

Obviously, if you don’t feel safe, you are not going to be honest if everyone knows your response. So instead of raising your fist, everyone on the team writes down their safety number on piece of paper, folds it up, and places it into a box. This keeps everyone’s answers anonymous.

  • Number 1: Don’t ask me, and if you do, I will probably won’t tell the truth

  • Number 3: Cautious and reserved. I will be careful about what opinions I express to the team

  • Number 5: I feel good and I will speak up and give you my honest opinion

Fist to five image

Once the responses are collected, they are read out loud. Now everyone on the team understands how the rest of the team is feeling. If there is a problem, the team can come together and fix it. It is important to understand that this exercise is about determining and acknowledging if a safety problem exists within your team. Culture and safety issues can penetrate your team in a variety of different ways. Some examples include:

  • Low team autonomy where decisions are handed down rather than made by the team
  • Poor team leadership
  • Difficult customer engagement
  • Burnout or increase in stress
  • Team members who dominate conversations or who are being perceived as combative
  • Individuals that carry baggage from previous teams
  • Conflicting individual personalities
  • New team and/or new team members

Fixing team safety

Unfortunately fixing team safety and culture issues are much harder than identifying them. The solutions can be unique to the individuals and team themselves. Even though we don’t have a one size fits all solution, we have found a couple of strategies that have successfully started the process of improving the team culture. In many ways, a lot of this goes back to the basics of leadership (i.e. not telling people what to do but driving clarity, building trust and rapport).

Encourage regular 1 on 1’s

Start meeting with your team members for 1-on-1 time on a regular basis. This includes not only the team leader meeting with everyone, but also across the different team members. You will gain insights and perspectives you would not normally get in a group setting. It allows you to build a better relationship with your co-workers. Better relationships create trust and safety.

Do a better team building

Team-building is a great way to get to know your co-workers. Stay away from the cliche events like laser tag, rock wall, and bowling. Instead, find an excuse to get together in person, grab a room, some food and drinks, and just get to know each other and have a proper conversation. Ask questions and talk about things you care about, things you are passionate about. Start with topics that are personal and outside of work. Then ease into light discussions about work topics and some of the product challenges you are trying to solve. This will stir ideas and build trust across the team. Putting yourselves into situation where everyone is being heard and your co-workers really do care.

Summary

Team and psychological safety are a key component for any team to work well together and be successful. The Fist to Five method for team safety is an interesting approach to identifying safety and culture issues among your team. It’s probably a terrible name as it doesn’t even involve a fist any more, but we would love to know what you think and learn about the ways that you have been trying to encourage team safety. Please let us know in the comments or catch me on Twitter.

Dan Hellem
Dan Hellem

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