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High Notification Rates and Psychological Safety: Decreasing the Learning Curve

3 min read · December 22, 2020

Category: General MusingsTagged with: Team DynamicsTeam HealthPsychological Safety

Photo by Pavan Trikutam

"The fascinating thing is, however, these awkward, painful interactions generate the highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for smooth cooperation." ~ Daniel Coyle

Last week my colleague, Mike Crittenden, wrote a post on how good teams are noisy. In it he discusses the concept of successful teams having high notification rates and tangible benefits he has observed. Interestingly enough, last week also brought a tangible example of how high notification rates and psychological safety can help reduce the learning curve.

What are Notifications?

On July 10, 1989 United Airlines flight 232 experienced a catastrophic engine failure at altitude disabling the pilots' ability to control the plane. In conjunction with a pilot trainer who was seated in first class, the two pilots were able to conduct an emergency crash landing with 185 survivors. Conversely, in each of the National Transportation Safety Board 28 simulations of the engine failure the plane spiraled out of control and would have left no survivors. How did these individuals complete the task? The answer lies in their communication style.

While attempting to control the plane, the two pilots and the trainer communicated in short notification bursts. They averaged a rate of 60 notifications per minute. This communication was unpolished and full of difficult questions. Some examples of these notifications are: "We're gonna have trouble stopping too", "Oh yeah. We don't have any brakes", and "More power, full power". The pilot could have pulled rank and "taken charge" of the situation. Instead, it was through humility and intense cooperation that they were able to complete the emergency crash. The notifications allowed them to combine their skills into a greater group intelligence.

How are Notifications and Psychological Safety Helpful?

Though we may not be faced with such a crisis as the United Airlines flight the concepts of high notification rates coupled with psychological safety still prove relevant in more mundane tasks. Recently I joined a team that is building web components in addition to giving more stylistic liberties to the components' consumers. Both of these have been pretty sizable shifts to my mental model. Thankfully, the team consisted of many people who I have worked closely with before. We celebrated the opportunity to work on a project together again. After reading through the documentation I was off to build my first meaningful components. First came the PR stage where several optimizations were pointed out to me. What really stood out was the disequilibrium that occurred when the component was utilized by a consumer.

Another developer contacted me saying that they had expected to pass in an image via a slot whereas I had configured the component to expect a source string. What proceeded was a series of clarifying statements, questions, and investigations with the goal of aligning expectations with the implementation. I still was sorting out this new flexible approach in my mind and asking lots of questions. The image in question needed to be a background image which required some additional refactoring and consideration. Within 40 minutes, the component had been adjusted and the two approaches were aligned.

At first blush this may not seem like much, or even be considered expected behavior. However, this could have also taken a vastly different approach. The other developer could have opened a bug ticket, creating an extended feedback loop which would have greatly delayed the integration. Instead these quick communication bursts were able to capture what they needed, what I was able to immediately sort out, clarifying questions, communicating uncertainty, and finally a prompt resolution to the problem at hand. This high notification rate and the safety of not knowing the answer reduced the feedback loop.

Circling back to Mike's post, what is the notification rate like on your teams? Successful teams are often noisy with a significant rate of these humble notifications. Engaging in this practice is a good way to participate in the vulnerability loop. Daniel Coyle sums up their impact nicely, "The fascinating thing is, however, these awkward, painful interactions generate the highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for smooth cooperation."

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