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Agility and managing errors

Why a mistake-permitting culture is not a question of mindset but of structures

  • Thomas Schnelle
  • Jens Kapitzky
  • Wednesday, 19. October 2022
mistake-permitting culture is not a question of mindset

An agile organization has a better approach to making mistakes: You try something out – and if it doesn’t work, you discuss what you can do better in the future! Sounds good. But not enough! Because such a description is as problematic as all talk about a culture that does not address the structures necessary to support it.

The discourse around New Work assumes that agile approaches promote a productive and consistently positive culture of allowing for mistakes to be made. The assumption is that those who work in an agile approach are fond of transparency, openness, and exchange – after all, the idea of working in flat hierarchies, regular feedback loops, and iterative processes is to be close to the actual problem or product and using constructive criticism to overcome hurdles in working together.

It is often overlooked that a mistake-permitting culture – like any organizational culture – does not develop independently of existing formal structures, but is always a reaction to the prevailing conditions. And one thing should be clear to everyone who has ever made a really stupid mistake: No one likes to talk about their own misfortunes voluntarily – and if there are ways to conceal them, then this is probably an attractive personal option, even for advocates of agile working approaches. 

A good mistake-permitting culture is a well-organized structure

Anyone who wants to establish a productive mistake-permitting culture in their organization, therefore, needs not only good will and appeal to the idea of mistake-permitting (although this may certainly help), but always also well-thought-out structures that not only allow managing errors but make it necessary. To establish a well-structured mistake-permitting culture, it is necessary to understand how the processes of working together are organized. The structure should take as its starting point the moment where mistakes commonly happen; also, it should be remembered that it is unpleasant to communicate mistakes. In organizations that reach a certain size, work must always be shared because not everyone can do everything at once, which means that the individual functions or areas must coordinate with each other. 

Even in agile structures, someone always needs to take responsibility for mistakes.

To function as an overall organization, even in agile approaches, there always needs to be at least one higher-ranking position that keeps track of the work processes to put back together what has been divided. For the overarching coordination of goals, plans, and targets, there simply needs to be a minimum level of hierarchy and places where responsibility – especially for errors – is assumed. In traditional as well as agile approaches, a good mistake-permitting culture requires exchange and communication about what went wrong within one’s team and between the teams or departments. The difference here is the question: Who needs to talk to whom about these mistakes? Who needs to know about these mistakes and who is responsible for correcting them? 

Whoever has the power also carries the responsibility

As long as mistakes ultimately have to be reported upwards and discussed with hierarchical superiors, even in agile approaches, nothing has really changed in the classic hierarchical structures. The demand often made in the New Work context is that superiors should no longer sanction mistakes but value them. This presupposes the continued existence of old hierarchical positions and leaves traditional power structures unchanged. 

If mistakes, misconceptions, and process faults no longer have to be reported upwards, but can be discussed and corrected where they occur, power shifts from “above” to “below”. Errors are then no longer tied to a vertical reporting requirement, and teams and areas have the power to decide how to proceed – making it much easier to find a productive way to manage errors. Securing this power shift is then not a question of mindsets, but of tangible structural changes – which neither preclude addressing errors beyond the boundaries of one’s own team or division nor question the validity of the goals. 

Those who relinquish control make a good mistake-permitting culture more likely

Naturally, mistakes are more easily addressed in one’s organizational unit than in a cross-departmental meeting, which can be taken advantage of. In agile approaches, many things can be decided independently in the departments and teams if superiors are willing to relinquish some control. In this sense, one could then also put an agile approach to tough areas of organizational decision-making – such as budgets (which experience shows are not so readily given out of the hands of superiors). In this way, budgets would not be abolished in the transition to agile approaches, but rather understood as a framework. 

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However, there is no longer any need to negotiate how budgets are to be used in budget discussions, because thought and decisions are made locally, in the departments and teams. Only the results and the questions to which answers are needed “downstairs” are reported “upstairs“. But whether, for example, funds are reallocated in a specific area, calculations have gone wrong, things are procured more cheaply or funds are freed up for experiments: Decisions may and should be made locally and then no longer require approval from “above,” because the employees “below” are already empowered to do this through agile approaches.

If responsibility (and the assumption of responsibility for mistakes) is shifted to the agile teams in this way, they can also independently work out a way of managing errors. This makes it more likely that mistakes will be reported. As a rule of thumb, one could say: the smaller the circle, of people to be informed, the easier it is to admit mistakes. This is no different in organizations than it is in our private lives – and even appreciatively dealing with each other does not change the fact that it is unpleasant to admit to a mishap in front of thirty people.

A mistake-permitting culture and agility belong together – just differently than it is commonly thought

Not infrequently, even in supposedly agile approaches, questions of guilt are ultimately resolved along power lines. But if you take agile thinking seriously, other questions also arise: Do the goals still fit? And do the departments or teams have ideas about how they want to and can achieve them in the future? This can then be discussed in detail – but the power to decide on the concrete steps still lies with the teams and areas. Structures that allow agility to be more than just a fashionable idea ensure the decision-making authority of teams and areas when it comes to issues of implementation, especially in the event of a conflict, and thus the power of those who will work on this implementation. 

A major advantage of such structures is the astonishingly wide range of concrete approaches that they make possible in the first place: Teams and divisions can thus determine their approach with a view to their particular possibilities and needs. Teams in which individuals, usually experts, pool a large amount of responsibility can work alongside teams in which everyone is involved in everything. What should apply in each case then no longer has to be decided by a superior. In case of doubt, he or she has enough to do with ensuring that all areas have these opportunities in the long term – and remains powerful enough with this alone.

Thomas Schnelle

Dr. Thomas Schnelle

is a Partner at Metaplan. He helps teams understand diverging stakeholder interests to enable concerted action.

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Jens Kapitzky

Jens Kapitzky

likes to negotiate complex issues of organizations, hidden in the narrative of a suspenseful case drama.

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