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On Trust

When I introduce friends to agile software development, the concept which stops them dead in their tracks is not "value points," "test driven development," or even "continuous delivery."  The seriously challenging concept

Don't try this...ever.

Agile lives and dies on trust, but trust is a commodity in short supply in many of our work places.  Why do we value contracts over collaboration?  Because we want to know who to blame when (not if) the project goes south, that's why, and we want to be able to sue them, fire them, or at least hold them up for public humiliation.

So how do you turn on the trust spigot, the wellspring for all actual returns on your agile investment dollar?  I will confide a little known secret to you.  People do not owe you their trust.  That thing where you allow your lower lip to quiver when people don't immediately jump to support your far-fetched organizational transformation idea?  Or the thing where you wave your resume annoyingly in the face of the new people you've just met, and demand a desk by the window, and turn down meeting requests without even explaining why?  Give it up.  Trust is something which gets built up over time, and it is something you earn.

Here's how:
  1. Keep your promises, large and small.  If you tell someone you'll send them an email, send them the email.  If you agree to set up a meeting, set up a meeting.  If you goofily agreed to take minutes on the world's most boring meeting, and you promised to send your notes out to all the attendees after the meeting, send them out after the meeting.  The way to earn trust is to make tens, or hundreds, or thousands, or a lifetime's worth of handshake deals, and to treat each one, however small, with the respect you'd give a contract signed in blood.  Once you become too important to show up to meetings on time or keep your small promises, you're not a trusted partner.  You're a wildcard to be exploited, at best, and a depressing, largeish obstacle to work around, at worst.
  2. Be careful about what you promise.  Here's a corollary and a tip.  To avoid collapsing under the load of your small promises, think about what to promise before you do it.  Give clear signals when you can't make a promise, and explain why you can't, if that's not clear.  In a world where your word is your bond, you need to be sparing with your word.
  3. Give the other guy the benefit of the doubt the first time.  Game theory suggests that if you're in doubt about the motivations of a person you're working with, you should go ahead and extend your own trust to them in your first interaction.  Unless you are in actual danger in the worst case scenario (for example, if you're rock climbing, and the new person you're with says you should let them secure the rope), it's a good idea to trust in your first interaction.  The other person will appreciate getting the benefit of the doubt, and you will potentially make a new friend.
  4. If that didn't work, you know better next time.  That addage "fooled me once, shame on you; fooled me twice, shame on me," is actually a helpful guideline for successful corporate living.  There is no need to trumpet to the world that you've encountered a non-trustworthy person, but now you know.
There is no tool, platform, or method in the world that can help you manufacture trust.  Trust must be built one interaction at a time, and you need to allow time for the trust patterns in your environment to make themselves apparent.  But once you reap the harvest sown in time, attention, and effort, you've done the hardest thing of all on behalf of your agile revolution.


  1. True and humbling reminder, thanks.

  2. Hey Dan,

    Pretty much just a pep talk to myself! Keeping promises is a tricky business. Cheers,


  3. Well put, Elena, elegantly said. Thank you!


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