A matter of trust

Can your customer trust you to act in their best interest?

There is a fundamental element that distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful agile engagements; trust. Because software development is fundamentally unpredictable, bordering on chaotic (as per the complexity theory definition), customers (whether external or internal) traditionally try to bring control through contracts and fixed scope. Agile, on the other hand, is successful because it leverages (rather than controls) this unpredictability.

However, if we are trying to “be” agile and leverage this unpredictability, we come up against the natural concerns and fears our customers hold. Can they trust us to act in their best interest? Can they trust us to fail fast? If we can’t guarantee exactly what they’ll get, can they trust us to deliver something of value? The less trust our customers have in us, the less agile we can be.

A quick aside: This does not mean that contracts are unnecessary. Trust is not blind, nor is it stupid.

As I mentioned in my book, the form and flexibility of both the relationship, and associated contract, between parties depends on the level of trust that exists between them. I define this across four distinct levels (in my book, I described 5 layers (Reference, Contract, Knowledge, Identification, Team), however the distinction between knowledge and identification was confusing, so I merged them into one).

Trust Pyramid

  1. Reference: This is the lowest form of trust and exists where trust between the parties is based on the reference of a mutually trusted third party.
  2. Contract: This is the most common level of trust, and the majority of relationships do not extend beyond this. This exists where parties create legally binding contracts (potentially with penalty clauses) as the core mechanism to enable trust between them.
  3. Identification: This level of trust is created over time and exists where parties have the opportunity to work together and build trust based on personal experiences. This is where we can really start to “be” agile.
  4. Partnership: This is the highest level of trust and exists when both parties share the same goals and outcomes. This may take the form of a strategic partnership or similar structure.

How do you build trust? Being trustworthy is a good start :-) Acting with fairness & integrity, sharing knowledge, being transparent and of course performing competently. Within teams, leaders who delegate outcomes (rather than actions), explain why, seek & value opinions, celebrate success, and give everyone opportunities to contribute (but still consider group, rather than individual, interests) build trust with their teams. It’s also worth mentioning that trust is based on perception, rather than reality. In an ideal world they should be the same, but acting with confidence and displaying concern or empathy are good ways of building trust at the start of a relationship.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below?