Sami Luoma

Why is failure so important, Agile Coach Sami Luoma?

You have probably often heard of an agile teams succeeding in its goals and achieving great results. Hardly ever does anyone hear the full story of the long list of trials before the final success. We are interviewing Sami Luoma, Agile Coach at OP, on how victories are typically preceded by failures, the philosophy of failure, and the kind of culture he is building as an Agile Coach to allow everyone to see mistakes as a gift.

A real-life failure story

Some years back, Sami Luoma was starting out as an Agile Coach. At the time of the events, Mr Luoma was directing a team of twelve people developing mobile apps for several platforms. The agile team self-managed its work by moving round Post-it notes on a bulletin board, a daily ordeal which many had become fatigued with. After observing for a time, Mr Luoma decided to take action. ‘I began to direct the team to move to using an electronic bulletin board, and agreed to handle the switchover personally. The task was quite an effort, as our project had gone on for some time, but because it only needed to be done once, I thought: why not?’ Mr Luoma recalls.

He did not bother asking the team for opinions on the electronic board, and so the switch was made. The first two or three weeks went along more or less without a hitch, but soon after, the team’s motivation to keep the board updated dropped and died down entirely. In the retrospective after the third sprint, Mr Luoma received explicit feedback that the digital board was not wanted, and the team wanted to go back to the old ways.

‘It was as if a light went off in my head,’ Mr Luoma exclaims. ‘The team hadn’t truly committed themselves to the tool – instead, I had simply forced them to adopt the change,’ he adds. As a result of the team’s wishes, the electronic tool was replaced for another, and five additional boards were added.

Initially, Mr Luoma tried to argue against the number of boards, but understood that he had already made a mess of the whole business once, and allowed the team to try its own way. Over the first month, the number of boards was reduced from six to four, but a big part of the dailies was still spent updating and moving them around the screen. At a retrospective after a few months’ struggle, one team member finally raised the issue of too many boards, and the rest agreed. A development suggestion for this was to transfer all jobs to a single board. The team was now ready as a whole for the change, and things kicked off in earnest.

‘I recall that soon after, my supervisor asked one of my team members whose idea it was to have just a single board. The reply was that it was the team’s idea,’ Mr Luoma says with a laugh. And the lesson? ‘I learned that the team needs to be allowed to find its own answers and solutions, and that my job is to support them,’ Mr Luoma sums up. Although company time had been spent on the hassle, the initial failure resulted in a practice that everyone could stand behind. What’s more, the Coach had learned a lesson.

In what kind of culture is it safe to fail?

Failures happen to all of us, but they are often hidden away to never see the light of day. While the individual may learn a lesson, the organisation itself carries on unchanged. Still, it is only through failures and the lessons they teach that a team can move forward and improve. When individuals accept failure, they also accept their own vulnerability. This requires a functional relationship of mutual trust.

‘People need to have trust in the team and managers before they can bring out their vulnerability in the face of failure. At that point, we have the courage to admit that we have wasted time or resources on failure, and that this is what we have learned,’ Mr Luoma says. ‘In an environment built on fear, this is not possible.’

A fear-based environment is formed when a workplace’s style of management punishes failure. The effect of this is that a team is not truly a team. ‘People don’t have the courage to commit to working and taking responsibility together, but instead trust only themselves and the things they are personally working on. There’s no desire for co-operation, as the fear of being punished for failure is so strong. In workplaces with this kind of atmosphere, the road to agile work will be a long one,’ Mr Luoma declares.

‘Here at OP, we luckily don’t have this kind of fear-based environment, and it’s easier to encourage people to develop their ways of working. The entire organisation, from top management down, is committed to moving to an agile mode of operation and building a new kind of operational culture,” Mr Luoma asserts.

The agile mode of operation is all about questioning and experimentation

‘Alistair Cockburn, the guru of agile work, said that everything is worth trying unless it takes you to prison, gets you fired, or is morally wrong. That leaves quite a bit of leeway,’ Mr Luoma laughs. ‘In the financial world, we of course have to remember that in some areas, failure is unacceptable. In the banking sector, we deal with the trust placed in us by customers, and that is something we must hold on to at all times.

‘Still, when customers are firmly safe and we think about what kind of organisation we are and want to be, I believe that everything should be fair game for criticism and experiments on different approaches. ‘There is almost always room for improvement in the dynamics and stages of work and co-operation,” Mr Luoma says. ‘This also applies to overall plans on how to realize the agile approach across the organisation.”

One pitfall to be avoided is ending up as a Cargo Cult, in which a set of rituals is repeated mindlessly, without an understanding of why things are done in a certain way. The phrase has its origins on Pacific islands during World War II, when indigenous tribes performed intricate rituals in order to summon US Navy aircraft to land without understanding the true nature or purpose of the planes. ‘The same danger always lurks in any organisation striving toward agile work. It’s all too easy to end up repeating the models and methods handed down to us uncritically and thus fail to fulfil the essence of agile work – continuous learning and improvement,’ Mr Luoma notes.

Three tips by Agile Coach Sami Luoma on building an agile culture

  1. Bring failure and its lessons public

    ‘Within the organisation, find a common way to tell others of failed experiments and the lessons learned. The main point should not be failure itself, but what was learned and how the team can improve as a result of the experiment. In this way, the feared and dreaded failure is given its own valuable purpose.’
  2. Challenge constructively

    ‘This is a topic in which all of us have room for improvement. Anyone can look around and see which things aren’t working out. If we were able to always look one step ahead and identify the issues that can be fixed, challenge things constructively and suggest improvements, we could make progress so much faster.’
  3. Experiment methodically

    ‘At best, the culture of experimentation means that before starting a trial, we define the criteria for its rejection and approval in order to see that it has succeeded. In this way, the experiments are methodical, and the indicators for success and failure are understood already at the outset. After this, we decide on an expiry date for the experiment and set it to motion. At the end of the trial period, we know precisely if we have succeeded, or if another solution should be tried.’