The old saying "canary in a coal mine" is not just a farce. From 1911-1986 canaries were used to detect carbon monoxide and other poisons in mines. Since they are highly susceptible to airborne poisons if they became ill or died it was a pretty strong indication that the miner needed to high tail it out of there.

Though we don't use canaries anymore, we have carried this saying into our vernacular, nowadays a canary can be anything that helps you avoid an ill fate. When people in an organization become the canaries they are often assessing risk and sometimes even assessing difficulty. Having people who are looking for risks and finding chinks in the armor is extremely valuable, they sit in the wings of a team providing warnings. Even so, there must be a balance between warning and willingness to commit to new solutions and make progress.

If we do not have people assessing risk in the organization we will be stumbling into things blindly, making plenty of horrible decisions along the way. Canaries are part of the way that you can take what has happened in the past and apply it to the future, their hindrance and resistance to change are often seated in their experience. Listen to them and you will improve your solutions as a result.

Most often a canary is a person on the team whose questions and statements take a negative approach towards a problems

  • This is why we can't do X?
  • My reservations about why?
  • If we do X, we would also have to do Y?

These questions are tremendous, the downfall comes when teams are looking for consensus or the canary is the loudest voice. There is always a wrench to be thrown, always at least one question that can stop the plan from being perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect plan and they will set out to prove that the plan being discussed falls into that category of imperfection.

To find balance in listening to our canaries and making progress. One of the things we have to do is focus on the problem and show that we understand it, before allowing solutions to be proposed. Doing this will help canaries adequately poke holes in the solution as it is built and know that risk is being reduced as the solution grows.

We also need to ensure is that if there are multiple solutions available we do not look for team consensus and let the canary prevent any action from being taken if there are actions that would be good for the team or organization. If this is the case, at the beginning of the discussion have the team appoint a decision-maker, if you appoint the canary that's on you, the decision-maker will be responsible for listening, understanding the problem, then processing everyone's solutions and arguments. This allows a team to make progress while reducing risk since everyone has the opportunity to be heard.

Being a canary is helpful and if you are one, first thank you. Second, you serve your team better when being the canary is a mode of thinking that you can hop in and out of when needed. You being critical when necessary is helpful, being critical all the time is often not helpful and brings the team down. I end this coming from a place of recent experience. On a project at work that I did not feel was adequately planned or resourced, after the decision was made my job should turn to support the people and the project whether I agree with it or not (If a project is unethical that is a different story, keep shouting, for example,