Sunday, February 21, 2016

On Blame

Blame is attribution and often misused.

I think I have a different take indeed. I think blame has traditionally been misused in many orgs to incorrectly scapegoat individuals or minorities (for political or egoic purposes), *however blame has utility otherwise attribution can not exist*. Today we find ourselves part of a 'politically correct' mainstream fearful of reprisals around allocation of blame in complex scenarios.  Indeed blame can be toxic when used non-skillfully, and can also be used to persecute those who are least able to defend themselves or initiate learning.

For Root Cause Analysis there actually has to be blame of a thing, process, person, agent, or group (or mix thereof). In our societal conflict avoidance culture, we tend to want to fix only the system or process, not always realising that humans are a huge part of, and make up a large part of the system. For humans to learn, they must not only know that they were wrong, or made a mistake, but feel it deeply to trigger deep learning. This is a physiological response that must happen.

There can be no responsibility, accountability or learning without said attribution. The trick is not to extrinsically 'blame' or 'shame' individuals. Blame must be intrinsically attributable to the thing, accountable team, or group responsible (if indeed that is the true RCA), otherwise there is no organisational or individual learning. In the case of no blame, the rest of the organisation has to evolve around these fixable/preventable failures via a form of avoidance or process overhead/tax.

Imagine a startup that couldn't fail fast and learn because the RCA is actually some of the people hired. Sure you reset the training/hiring etc. (or fire them) but you also need to target the individuals for betterment if you want to keep them. If the RCA is that an individual or teams need more training, then this must be identified and dealt with at a management tier right?

The challenge is not to explicitly blame/shame any *individuals* (whose teams intrinsically know who were to blame for certain events) but for managers/leaders or groups to fall on their sword and accept attribution/blame for their team's actions IMHO.

This topic of 'blameless' culture has a groundswell which I fundamentally disagree with (mostly in the avoidance and transparency angles) as a form of avoidance of conflict.

This is indeed a nuanced approach but attribution and accountability form the backbone of progress. I keep coming back to this seminal book (see the summary section)

Perhaps every Post Mortem should end with the question, "do our teams need more training"?

Appendix. A
Why Organizations Don't Learn

1 comment:

Donal said...

Follow up recently with excellent talk at iNOG::D by John Looney (ex-Google/current-Intercom) on "Psychological Safety and Operations"
video (running time ~22mins) via