J. Paul Reed: [Laughs] It sounds like there’s a certain manager that Paul may have in mind that… you know, for a friend, asking for a friend. Right?
Eric Sigler: Yeah. Yeah.
J. Paul Reed: So, there’s a couple of different conversations that are happening right now about blameless. One of them is this idea of can you have – can you be blameless? And that goes to something that I’ve written a couple blog posts on – and maybe we can link to them – about the distinction between blameless and blame-aware, and the idea that in sort of cognitive psychology we actually use blame to get rid of pain and discomfort. And those are words from a sociologist; her name is Brené Brown.
And so, we’re actually hardwired as a way to sort of dissipate this kind of emotional heat or badness – it’s to blame. Sometimes that can actually be blame ourselves. How many retros have we all been in where somebody says, “I fat fingered it. It’s all me. Can we just move on?” They’re blaming themselves and they –
Eric Sigler: And it’s a release mechanism that –
J. Paul Reed: Exactly. Exactly. It’s like “Mea culpa. Let’s all move on.” When we say “blameless,” are we talking about that sort of discussion? It’s like, can we do truly blameless? And the answer there is I don’t know that you actually can because it’s kind of hardwired into the way we’re thinking.
But there’s also a separate discussion happening about – when we talk about blameless and the idea of blameless versus sanctionless.
And this is something that – a conversation that John Alspaugh actually started with the Stella Report, and this idea that, actually, when we say “blameless” we are actually – we actually technically mean “sanctionless.” And so, the distinction there is if you have a picnic and a storm comes and it rains and it ruins the picnic, we would blame the weather. And that’s a cause, not a root cause, but a cause attribution. The reason why picnic was ruined, I’m blaming the cloud –
Eric Sigler: The weather.
J. Paul Reed: Right. But I’m not going to sanction the weather. That’s not a thing I can really do.
And so, a lot of times organizations, even though they say they’re doing blameless, they’re actually coming up with a causal chain of some sort. Maybe lots of different factors – I’m not necessarily – again, not talking root cause specifically. But they’re coming up with things to blame. But they’re trying to say, “We’re not going to issue sanctions to the people that did the work.”
And it’s interesting that part of the question is “How do you address managers that violate the trust?” We’re kind of required to do that. So, that is one of the things that’s really kind of actually difficult because it’s so easy to mess up and not get that opportunity back. And it’s not just leaders or managers that do this. I’ll give you an example. I was shadowing somebody that was doing a retrospective, and in the middle of their retro one of the engineers blurted out, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” And that is a teachable moment where the person facilitating that, whether it’s a manager or not, can step in and say, “This is not about that. And that’s not the kind of language we want to be using.” And then, additionally, actually, I recommend talking to that person after the fact and saying – it’s not a reprimanding thing, but also “Is there a reason that you said that? Is there something you can help me understand why you had that reaction to that?”
And so, I was talking to the facilitator afterwards and I was like, “You do realize that because of that, the message that the entire team got is that it’s okay to call somebody else’s ideas in public, in a forum that we kind of said was safe, because we kind of opened it that way, I can call your ideas stupid.”
I hear this a lot where it’s either historical reasons or it’s not the culture and they’re trying to work towards that and there’s a lot of just baggage, so that behavior has been allowed for a long time. So, it can be really hard.
And what I see, the main way to address that is you start with the smallest group of people that feel that they have trust. So, sometimes I’ve actually seen where organizations do multiple levels of retros. And so, maybe there’s a big incident and three teams were involved. All the teams will do retros, which can be a safer space than when they all get together and then do the retro. One thing you can do, and I’ve seen it start with two people, they’ll do – the two people that were involved in an incident will do a retro in a way that they can trust each other and talk about it, and maybe that becomes three, four, then maybe the whole team.
Some managers – this is interesting – will self-select out of the process. So, they’ll be like “The team has the retro but I’m not there” because it’s perception.
Eric Sigler: Yeah, the power dynamics of having someone who’s your manager and in control of your salary and your raises also hearing things that may not be entirely positive about you.
J. Paul Reed: Right. Or that they did not know that’s what work actually looks like. It’s really hard once – after such a mistake it’s really hard to fix that because it basically requires going to the team and saying, “Here’s the mistake that I made. Here’s why I don’t as a team want to be doing that. And here’s what I’m going to do differently.” And then being very deliberate about doing that differently so you don’t just say it and then not follow through on it. Through a combination of factors that’s not always going to be possible.
So, actually, what often happens is you get your standard sort of organizational change dynamic going on. And what I mean by that is that person is just not involved, and either they eventually leave and there’s a new manager that does it differently, – or – I’ve seen it too – sometimes managers, there may be low trust and they have someone facilitate. They hire a facilitator. And then, what happens is through that the manager that we’re talking about isn’t involved, but you still start to promote the right behaviors or the behaviors you want because it’s just someone else.
Eric Sigler: One of the questions that I sometimes deal with when I’m talking with folks who are not either actual subject matter experts doing the work or line managers who have a team of subject matter experts, but when I talk to folks that are a little higher up in the organization there’s still a lot of disconnect. “What do you mean it’s blameless? Somebody did this thing.” What differences in the approach would you take for somebody who’s really, really high up – a director, a CIO, or a CEO? “Here’s what blameless is.”
J. Paul Reed: At that level we talk a lot about accountability. And it’s kind of – in a good way it’s “I need to hold my people accountable;” in a bad way it’s “Heads need to roll for this.” One of the biggest things that I think it’s important to talk about at that level is what business outcomes are you interested in, and is firing someone going to get you that outcome?
One of the other things that is interesting to help people at that level with kind of examining their own organization is what the work actually looks like. And you see this in DevOps a lot: walking the gemba of Toyota product and systems. Walking the gemba is like executives and high level people walking through the highways seeing people do the work, seeing the messy realities of the situations that decisions they make four or five levels removed actually put those people in. Sometimes the tradeoffs that they’re forcing those people to make, potentially without a lot of guidance. Senior leaders, it’s not like complexity or complex situations is new to them.
And that’s 30, 40, 50 years of kind of theory on that. So, it’s not like it’s new. But what can often be new is what is the actual reality of – if you go and look at things? I think that’s a good way to kind of have that conversation.
The other thing I’ve noticed sometimes: The pattern to blame is really ingrained. And remember, I said it’s a cognitive thing for ourselves. But also, a lot of our culture, the stories we tell, we tell linear stories. Movies are for the most part linear stories and there’s a protagonist and an antagonist. And so, we’re wired to sort of – that’s how we understand what happened. And the thing about that is if you’re talking about a huge multinational corporation – or, remember when the airlines had all those problems with their IT systems going down?
Eric Sigler: Yep. Yep.
J. Paul Reed: It’s really hard for a CIO to tell a story to the public, “Yeah, the board has been underinvesting in IT for 20 years, and I showed up 3 years ago and they expected me to fix it and they didn’t. They haven’t done that. That’s not been a priority for the company, and this is what happens.” You don’t see CIOs saying that publicly.
We talk a lot about empathy at kind of all the levels of the stack. A lot of times, when you see that it’s like it’s really hard to do it any other way. And that’s kind of the important part when you get someone at that kind of senior leadership level that does start to think about “Well, would I get the better business outcome that I want if I thought about it differently?”