Balancing Safety and Productivity

To create an engineering organization that’s focused on high-impact and that routinely provides innovation, you have to put in place a culture based on curiosity and willingness to fail. Genuine novelty does not always succeed. I can say unequivocally that most teams I worked with started in a default state of risk aversion. No one wants to be on the line for not getting work done on time, hence not trying anything new.

An R&D group that’s always staying within its comfort zone is almost an oxymoron. And yet, when you do not cultivate the safety and trust that are necessary in order to take risks (even relatively small ones), you will squash creativity. The reason many companies have dialed such “risks” down too much is not that they lack creativity or willingness to try new things. Often it is a result of being inculcated only to be measured on productivity.

The focus on so-called productivity or, to be more exact, short-term performance instills in everyone the sense that no moment can be spared. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider when the last time your team came up with a request to do something that might turn out to have been a waste of time was?

One of the many trade-offs leaders need to account for is the Creativity-Productivity trade-off. You cannot afford to have your team always be trying new things, like some FAANG laboratories department that has a huge budget and no concrete obligations. Everyone knows that. But being 100% focused on hitting your goals every single time is too unbalanced.

If you do not foster creativity, you will lose out in the long term. The top talent will not want to stay, and the business will suffer from deteriorating performance. That creativity depends on safety to fail: people should not fear to take calculated risks. That, of course, does not mean they are never accountable for failures. So how do we balance these?

Don’t allow teams always to get 100% of their goals done

While this might seem like a favorable situation on paper, I use this is a quick sniffing test to find teams that are going to fail in the long term. If you have a “great team” that always delivers everything, they are likely not trying anything new and have a continually lowering bar.

When reviewing goals, be it when setting up yearly goals or retrospecting sprints, be clear that you do not expect everything to be done, or note when there’s too much “success.”

Celebrate taking initiative and novel ideas—even when they fail

If you only celebrate successes, people will eventually learn those are what they should be optimizing for. It’s good to make it a habit also to note novel ideas and approaches that might not have succeeded, but were good attempts. If you’re holding a hackathon, for example, consider celebrating at the end not just the squad that got something working, but also the one team that had the boldest idea. Have “shoot the moon” awards quarterly. Make failures not just safe, but good (sometimes!).

Clearly state that critical milestones

To create the right equilibrium between productivity and creativity, teams must know when they are handling a critical goal. These are the goals where you will execute on risk-averse plans rather than trying something riskier.

When we know when we must be careful, and those are explicitly laid out, we also know how to treat the normal state—where we have room to play and experiment.

Search for cause and improvement, not blame

When you routinely take risks, you will have failures. Safety doesn’t mean you disregard failures with a “no biggie” attitude. For failures to be ok, you want to maximize what you get out of failures and learn from them.

Hold postmortems after failures, with the intent of learning: find the cause and improve your next attempts. These are not the place to point fingers. You should come out of them with clear action items and lessons. Update your risk assessment framework accordingly (see next section).

Develop a framework for assessing risks

It’s great to take risks when those risks make sense. No one should advise you to redo a critical part of your infrastructure using bleeding-edge technology your team doesn’t know a week before a major launch. Reasonable risks to take are those where you have enough to gain and can withstand the cost of failure.

When managers and individual contributors decide to take on risk, the team should be aware of that and the reasoning behind it. Reckless risk-taking should not be part of your culture. Your values should include taking smart risks.