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February 02, 2018

How Do Scrum & Kanban Create Psychological Safety?

4 mins read

When you first hear the term “psychological safety” it may conjure up strange images in your mind, like the title of a suspenseful movie or the act of protecting your brain from some imminent danger, but it is an important factor for teams. Edmondson (1999) described psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”

In Agile methodologies, the concept of psychological safety is critical; it is part of the underlying mindset shift. Without it, team members cannot grow, improve, or effectively change together. The core values and principles that define these methodologies cultivate the foundation of trust that provides psychological safety for team members.

Scrum creates psychological safety through its values; they create a shared basis of behavior for team members. Kanban creates psychological safety through principles that focus attention on the system and its evolutionary improvement. Although they foster a sense of trust in different ways, both approaches create psychological safety through core values and principles.

Safety in Scrum Values

The Scrum values of Focus, Courage, Openness, Commitment and Respect collectively encourage an environment of trust. By embracing these five values, the team creates a safe space essential to its health and success.

  • Focus encourages safety by providing clear roles for team members and well-defined goals for specific iterations. This allows the team to focus on only a few things at a time. Team safety emerges from those clear expectations.
  • Courage creates a supportive environment by developing a collective sense of responsibility for the team’s work. When each team member has the courage to access the collective brain power of their colleagues, they have the support of team. The team structure gives team members the courage to challenge the status quo, voice concerns or benefits, and be vulnerable enough to share their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
  • Openness is the basis of Scrum; it leads to transparency, allowing all team members to inspect and adapt. Everyone shares information, regardless of whether it’s about progress or problems. Openness fosters greater collaboration with stakeholders, and encourages them to learn from the team as the team learns from them.
  • Commitment requires team members to dedicate themselves to the effort and to the team. They give their best effort to the shared goal, to their teammates, to collaboration, to learning, and even to the Scrum framework.
  • Respect comes from working together as team members and sharing in collective successes and failures. Mutual respect creates trust in each other’s differing opinions, acknowledges team diversity, and allows the team to more effectively meet the goals of the stakeholders.

Safety in Kanban Principles

Kanban principles emphasize evolutionary change, increasing the effectiveness of the current environment. This approach inherently provides psychological safety for team members by minimizing the uncertainty and discomfort of change.

  • Start with what you do now: Team members start with what they are currently doing and improve the processes from that point. With no immediate drastic change in the way the work is done, team members can find safety in the familiar and respect for each other.
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change: Although Kanban makes no immediate changes, both management and team members must commit to continuous, incremental improvement. This encourages safety because their skill and experience forms the basis for change.
  • Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & titles: Trust emerges from acknowledging that some elements of the team’s current approach do actually work and are worth preserving. Fear of change is reduced by allowing current roles, responsibilities, and job titles to initially remain. This helps create a supportive environment and innovative thinking amongst the team members.
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels: Acknowledging that any team member can be a leader increases psychological safety. The everyday actions of people in the trenches are respected and can be an important source of leadership. Creating the space for every team member to be a change agent helps bring new ideas to the forefront and encourages team empowerment.


Scrum and Kanban create different pathways to psychological safety, but both methodologies develop that sense of trust through the central values and principles that define them. The Scrum values of Focus, Courage, Openness, Commitment and Respect collectively create an environment of trust. The Kanban Principles create psychological safety by creating an environment that fosters evolutionary change. Whether you leverage the Scrum values, the Kanban principles, or both, the psychological safety that you cultivate is critical for an effective Agile team.


Read More

This blog post is part of our “ Scrum vs. Kanban” series, triggered by a working session at one of Excella’s Agile Coaching Circle’s offsite meetings. We explored our experiences with and thoughts about the Scrum Framework and Kanban Method, identifying a series of themes that would enhance the knowledge and understanding of our colleagues. We are pleased to share those lessons with you.

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