There is an old, old movie called the Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman. In it, there is a compelling scene where the evil doer continues to ask Hoffman – “Is it safe?” while giving him a free dental checkup.

You can watch the scene here, if you’re up to it:

There seems to be several things that are incredibly difficult for many folks to do.

You see it in general, but it’s particularly interesting in agile contexts. Agile Teams seem to rarely want to:

  • Ask for help
  • Or say, I don’t know

I’m wondering why?

And while I’m sure this situation is incredibly nuanced, I’m also sure one of the primary reasons is safety. In other words, is it safe for team members to show vulnerability?

And I’m wondering what part fear might play?

  • Fear of being wrong?
  • Fear of everyone’s reactions & perceptions?
  • Fear that you should know something?
  • Fear of appearing vulnerable?
  • Fear of losing credibility and perhaps even, your job?

Or does working in regulated environments serve to exacerbate things? Or serve as a driver of sorts? For example, an environment where someone else has to review & approve your work.

And finally, do roles come into play. For example, if I’m an entry-level engineer, just starting out, am I more worried about team perceptions? Or an older, senior engineer who is competing with “whipper-snapper” engineers right out of school?


A few weeks ago I did a coaching panel discussion for the Scrum Alliance with Jim York and Michael de la Maza. Both Certified Enterprise Coaches (CEC) with the alliance.

In the coaching session, Michael suggested a 2-question survey for checking on safety:

  1. How open is your team to ideas from everyone, trying new things, and taking risks?
  2. Does your team engage in the tough conversations around uncomfortable areas?

Michael mentioned that the answers were on a simple 1..5 scale. And that the key was to measure at some endpoints. For example, if you were measuring the effectiveness of a coach increasing safety, you might administer the survey at the beginning and end of their engagements.

As I think about this challenge, I like Michael’s idea. It would certainly make the level of safety more transparent for subsequent coaching at a team and leadership level.

It’s also a fairly simple survey to run. What do you think, would a safety survey help you in your organizational understanding and team coaching?

Wrapping Up

As a close to this article I want to encourage ScrumMasters to continue the discussions in their teams around safety. Whether you gain more insights via a survey, focused retrospective, or simple discussion, I think we all need to explore the safety of our environments.

Stay agile (and safe) my friends,