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The Emergent Leader: Planning Poker, a Tool for Building Psychological Safety on Scrum Teams – Agile Coaching Exchange

The Emergent Leader: Planning Poker, a Tool for Building Psychological Safety on Scrum Teams

Written by #ACESoCal co-organizer   | Originally published on the ScrumAlliance Community Blog on 19 October 2016

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

When team members are motivated at work and want to share an idea for improving performance, they frequently do not speak up because they fear that they will be harshly judged. When psychological safety is present, team members think less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company.

This term was originally coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, and has emerged as one of the most studied in group dynamics and team learning — and for good reason.1

In 2013, Google studied the qualities and practices that led to their higher-performing teams and found psychological safety to be at the top of the list.2

  • Our sense of safety is quickly threatened by what we see (55%) . . . what we hear (38%) . . . what we say (7%). It’s pretty startling to think that more than half of what we communicate has nothing to do with what comes out of mouth.
  • Our ability to perform effectively is distracted by the nonverbal behavior of those around us. And others are, in turn, impacted by how we behave. We get stuck in the emotional traumas of the past and what we can do about them.3

How does Planning Poker® contribute to building a psychologically safe space for Scrum and Agile Teams? The answer, in my experience, is twofold: It’s the tool (Planning Poker or something like it) and expert facilitation by the ScrumMaster.

I find that everyone uses Planning Poker in a variety of ways, and it’s easy to get tangled in the “velocity” part of things and miss the power of this approach for facilitating critical thinking and building psychological safety. I teach and use it in a way that I believe can contribute to developing a psychologically safe space for your team to talk through functional differences in what it will take to get a body of work completed.

Let’s take sprint planning: In the first part of this activity, where the product owner is “telling the stories” about the next batch of work to be completed and the whole cross-functional team is present and hearing these stories together, there comes a point when it’s time to talk about how the team views the work, presented from a complexity or effort perspective. Once you’ve determined your barometer (complexity or effort), then you, as the ScrumMaster, facilitate voting on each story, taking care that the voting happens in a way that honors, respects, and encourages differing views (cards selected and placed face down before all showing them at once).

It’s vital to facilitate this activity to ensure that the voting gives everyone has an opportunity to constructively share their opinions, voice their concerns, and revote if necessary.

What are the risks or cost to not having psychological safety during an event like sprint planning?

  • Waste
  • Partially done work
  • Extra features
  • Poor handoffs
  • Delays

. . . and more.4

In my experience, there is a short list of things you can do to up your facilitation game and cause positive outcomes for your teams.

  1. Listen carefully to what’s being said and watch for what’s not being said (e.g., body language).
  2. Invite full participation.
  3. Ask questions that invite conversation in a variety of ways: to set context, to invite development, to probe, clarify, reframe, and more.
  4. Take an unbiased stance.
  5. Remember, your role is to be of service.

To sum it up: Use Planning Poker, or tools like it, to facilitate conversations that honor the diversity in thinking, opinions, and ideas of each of your team members. And when you follow the short list of tips above, you’re on the way to creating a space for effective outcomes.


  1. The product owner tells the stories to develop a common understanding by the team of what the end user will want.
  2. The team looks at the story and votes, using Planning Poker cards to articulate the lens through which they see the complexity or size of the story.
  3. Everyone who will work on the story has a card and a vote.
  4. When voting happens with cards face down, then revealed all at the same time, no one is influenced unnecessarily to vote one way or another.
  5. Now the facilitation can begin by the ScrumMaster. (See Top 5 tips above.)
  6. Resolve differences by asking the team what they can decide on.
  7. Move to the next story.
  8. Rinse and repeat.

Planning Poker, when used with effective facilitation, can create a space with your teams in which each person can articulate their opinions, thoughts, and views about the work to be done.

Creating psychological safety with your teams is an expression of the Scrum values, in particular Openness, Commitment, and Respect.5 Use Planning Poker to facilitate the kinds of conversations that matter and set your teams up for success.

Above all, be of service.


  3. Dr. Debra Dupree,

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