The Agile Angle

The Nexus of Agile Practices, Lean Principles, and Common Sense

The Psychology of the Sign Off

November 14th, 2013


“Make sure you get the Sign Off.”

That’s a common mantra in any business. The sign off is pursued and valued like it’s some kind of ancient idol. (The opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind.) We take it for granted that it’s a necessary part of the processes we use to produce product. But what does the sign off really mean? When you get that signature on the document (or give yours), what is the sign off saying and what expectations are being set?

Webster’s online dictionary defines “sign off” as follows:
“to approve or acknowledge something by or as if by a signature <sign off on a memo>”

Hey, that sounds pretty innocuous. I showed you something, or did something for you, and you’re just signing a piece of paper that says you saw it, or I did it. But the benign nature of that thought belies the social complexities and implications of what that sign off really means.

On one level, it’s an issue of trust. Why do you need my signature? Isn’t it enough that I told you verbally that its fine? If we worked in a world of implicit trust, that might be OK. But if you’re the one looking for that signature from a manager or client, what are the chances you would respond “yes, sure, it’s fine?” I say the chances are slim and none. If you could take it on verbal approval, then chances are:

1. The decision or deliverable in question is very minor,
2. Your organization is extremely small, and/or
3. You really DO work in an organization with a model of implicit trust (this is rare if (2) is not true).

So if we don’t trust each other enough to take everything on verbal approval, the question is why? What are we afraid is going to happen if something goes wrong?

In THAT question lies the core issue. It’s not what happens when everything goes well…when the product is delivered on time, on budget, free of defects. At that point, everyone is happy, and someone throws a party. Maybe the only person unhappy with the lack of formal sign offs in that situation is the person whose job it is to make sure all the boxes were checked for process’ sake.

But when things DO go wrong – major defects make it into production (“QA is the problem”), business owners or customers report that product features are “what they asked for, but not what they needed” (“Requirements are the problem”) or delivery is very late or well over budget  – THAT is when the true nature of the formal sign off shows. That’s when fingers get pointed and people dive for cover…behind the sign off.

I submit that at its core, the formal sign off serves mainly as an abdication of responsibility for a deliverable, or transference of that responsibility to the signatory.

This is why people are so apprehensive to sign off; because the signer puts him/her self on the hook for the deliverable. They’ve accepted responsibility for something they’ve likely had no hand in producing, but for which they have to answer. And when things go wrong, they’ll be left holding the bag. This is an issue of the culture of the process.

Imagine a large river being fed by several small streams.
At the point where each stream feeds into the main river, there’s a lock. Water flows from each stream into the main river, but once it’s contributed a certain amount, the lock closes. When a storm hits at the mouth of the river, and water is pushed back upstream, the locks are closed and the streams are protected, but the main river (and its surrounding banks) is devastated.

This is a metaphor for the classic sign off when things go wrong, and the real tragedy is that in this model, nobody is responsible for the successful delivery of the product (except maybe the last signatory). Everyone else has plausible deniability. If I’m contributing to the product, and something goes wrong because of my work, but you signed off on it, I can make a great case that I’m not responsible because you accepted both my product and the responsibility when you signed off.

Transparency + Communication + Accountability = TRUST

The Agile mindset, by contrast, emphasizes collaboration, transparency, and mutual accountability. We’re all in this river together…the business, development, delivery…everyone. We move away from the silo mentality that fosters people protecting their camp (or stream) at the expense of the product. We ditch the locks and move to putting the product first, abandoning personal agendas, and diving in together.

Is it possible to poison an Agile development effort by sticking to the old psychology of the sign off? Absolutely. I’ve experienced it. You have to make a conscious effort to change that atmosphere. It’s not in our nature and it’s not easy…it takes a willingness by the parties involved to give up the protection of the sign off, and sign up for shared success or failure. Foster this culture shift in your organization, however, and trust and a shared sense of ownership of the product can cement the team together, stronger than the sum of its parts.


The Agile Angle

The Nexus of Agile Practices, Lean Principles, and Common Sense