Banishing Blame with Agile Values

I recently got pointed to an article about some research done by researchers at Stanford and USC about the dynamics of blaming in organizations. People Like to Play the Blame Game says that it’s quite easy to create a culture of blame.

Merely observing someone publicly blame an individual in an organization for a problem - even when the target is innocent - greatly increases the odds that the practice of blaming others will spread …

The ways that you avoid a blame culture seem to fit well into an agile culture that values retrospectives, and continuous improvement. The article advises leading by example:

A manager can keep a lid on the behavior by rewarding employees who learn from their mistakes and by making a point to publicly acknowledge his or her own mistakes, Fast said. Managers may also want to assign blame, when necessary, in private and offer praise in public to create a positive attitude in the workplace.

This advice isn’t just for managers; everyone on the team needs to acknowledge and learn from their own mistakes. And when you have a problem and find yourself trying to figure out who’s fault it is, take the advice from the XP books such as Extreme Programming Installed
and decide that It’s Chet’s Fault, which is to say, stop trying to place blame and think about what the problem is.

In an agile organization you need to be careful to balance the need to figure out the root causes for why a project didn’t go as well as it could have , and the tendency to place blame. Blame undermines collaboration, making it more difficult to improve. Accountability and responsibility help you figure out how to do better.  Create an environment where it is OK to accept responsibility. One way to  do that is to acknowledge when you made a mistake yourself. Another is to start having retrospectives periodically, and not just when things go bad.

Another quote from the article led me to think about another benefit of agile.

Another experiment found that self-affirmation inoculated participants from blame. The tendency for blame to spread was completely eliminated in a group of participants who had the opportunity to affirm their self-worth.

Agile projects, with a common vision, self-organizing teams, and good infrastructure to help you make forward progress and detect problems quickly are a perfect environment to feel like you are contributing.

While much of what’s in the article sounds intuitive, it’s good to know that there is data to support that blame is both contagious, and simple to avoid.