How to Facilitate a Team Safety Check

Loot Crate Team Safety Check Cards

Note: This is the first post in a series of posts about the importance of safety for highly functioning collaborative work spaces. Future posts will include The Evolution of Team Safety Checks, How to Build up Safety at Any Level at an OrganizationHow to Collect Anonymous Qualitative Feedback and Efforts to Boost Safety LevelsLet’s get started with this one…

The Team Safety Check is the fastest way I know of to gather valuable insights about team safety levels. Teams familiar with the exercise get tangible results in less than 60 seconds! I’m not kidding. Easy to facilitate and low cost, it is both fun for the team members to participate in and creates awareness. That’s why use it – a lot.

Before I continue, I would like to mention I was heavily inspired by Steven M. Smith’s blog post “Safety Check”.

What is it?

  • An awareness exercise only.
  • quantitative measure to gauge feelings of safety amongst the team members.
  • An anonymous exercise where people feel safe to participate without being exposed.
  • A feedback loop for the agile coach, scrum master, manager or team lead to get valuable insights without using authoritative behavior.

What it’s NOT!

  • Not a facilitation to create insights about why (qualitative data) people do or do not feel safe within their team space.
  • Not a format to discuss and handle feedback from the participants.
  • Not a space where to resolve existing issues regarding team safety.

Facilitator’s Preparation – What’s Needed?

  • Team members as the participants
  • Team Safety Check Cards to collect a data set playfully
  • A Team Safety Tracker to monitor results over time

Step One – Setting the Stage

Regardless if this is the first time facilitating a Team Safety Check or if the routine has already been established, it’s important to set the stage properly. Precisely because this is an exercise to measure the levels of safety for every team member, it is VERY important that each team member trusts the facilitator and how they handle the exercise. The facilitator must be flawless in the execution to keep the integrity of anonymity alive. Though demonstrating how everyone’s trust is valued the participants will provide more accurate data in return.

First and Foremost, This is About Awareness
The facilitator must deliver two core messages to the participants:

  1. The Team Safety Check is an awareness exercise and only that. Nobody is obligated to make comments once the results are revealed.
  2. The exercise is done anonymously so that everyone’s feedback will be honest and genuine.

Step two – Setting up the Game

Every team member gets a set of cards. Each set of cards is numbered 1 through 5. The participants hold the cards up as if they are playing a card game – well, they are. The facilitator explains what each number represents according to the following criteria:

  • 5 – Everything is discussable without filtering.
  • 4 – Almost everything is discussable without filtering.
  • 3 – Most things are discussable without filtering.
  • 2 – Almost nothing is discussable without filtering.
  • 1 – Nothing is discussable without filtering.

Filtering refers to modification of the original ‘raw’ thought, idea or message before saying it in front of the one’s team members. The more comfortable people are with conveying their unfiltered thoughts, the safer they feel with the team space.

Once the facilitator confirms that everyone understands what each card represents, there is only one question to ask the team members:

“How Safe Do You Feel With the Team Space?”

The Team Space is the space team members create together. It’s the combination of the physical space and the psychological space.

Once clarity of the card values is confirmed and the question to answer is understood, it’s time to play.

Step Three – Playing the Team Safety Check

The participants choose the card they want to ‘play’ and slide it up-side-down toward the center of the table – remember the point is anonymity.  All played cards are briefly shuffled so nobody can trace a specific card to any one person. All cards played are then flipped over to reveal the numbers.

Results of Playing Team Safety Check

Step Four – Tracking the Results

The following data should be gathered and tracked over time.

  • Date
  • Team name
  • Histogram: Counts per value played
    • e.g. 3×5, 2×4, 1×3, 0x2, 0x1
  • Team average
    • e.g. (3×5+2×4+1×3+0x2+0x2)/6 cards played =
    • (15+8+3+0+0)/6 = 26/6 = 4.3
  • Caveats to the results
    • Any missing team members  (sick, vacation, etc.)
    • Any new team members joined the team

One of the simplest methods to track these values over time is through use of a basic spreadsheet. Additionally, it’s helpful to create a line graph to visualize progress over time. By showing the graph to the team members openness and transparency is fostered about what happens with the data. That is another small step to increase safety within the team space.

That’s it for the facilitation itself. Once the values have been revealed and results tracked the exercise is over. Quick and simple.

Interpreting the Results

The question will come up how to interpret the results. I’ll write up a separate post to extend on this question, but here are some quick insights what I have noticed.

Team Averages

  • If the team average is between 4.0 and 5.0 there is no need for any action – the team space leans towards being safe.
  • If the team average is in the 3’s or lower, the team space is not safe enough to be a highly effective team. The facilitator should initialize a qualitative measure exercise to understand what is going on. The results from that exercise provide insights into specific actions to take. (Separate post on that coming…)

Outliers

Sometimes an outlier is revealed. Let’s say the team average is above 4.0, where most people played 5’s and 4’s, but one card with a low value was played, like a 1 or a 2. That means, while the team average is high and the team’s level of safety is healthy overall, one person is an outlier and does not feel safe with the team space. The team as a whole it not reaching their highest levels of performance.

This is a great opportunity to offer 1:1 time with the person who threw in the low value. But it should be at the discretion of that person. It’s important to offer a space to talk privately and when that person is ready for it – not to demand it. Especially not immediately. Should that person not feel safe with the facilitator, then offer time with an independent trustworthy person (e.g. independent agile coach or people operations representative). A trained and skilled coach should be able to handle these situations well.

That’s it for this post. I hope this makes sense. Let me know, if something wasn’t.