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Not So Fast! Before You Play the Blame Game

Benny was pissed. (names have been changed to protect the guilty)

Benny was a client of mine and was not happy. A relatively simple mistake had become compounded by the multiples of people affected by it, and by the time everything was corrected something small and benign had become annoying and intractable like a fast-changing traffic light on a road narrowed by construction forcing dozens of cars ton inch along the information superhighway.

Benny wanted someone’s head.

Hundreds of years ago in the age of trades and crafts there was no Benny, no middleman less “manager.” Unless you were a noble (a misnomer if ever there was one) you worked pretty hard farming or making things by hand and you were a force of one. Mistakes you made in the barter economy cost you alone and you directly, and you tended not to make them often, given that you and your family liked to eat regularly if not robustly.

Not so today.

In the modern economy our inter-connectedness and seamless integration of partners and suppliers means mistakes become complex and costly but everyone pays a portion of the bill, the waste and excess causing no shortage of grief rippling through the system as we try and solve the riddle of “what the hell happened?” Those who laud making mistakes as a way of learning oversimplify a complicated environment as anyone working for a corporation can tell you: mistakes are not celebrated.

Indeed, the Bennys of the world seek revenge and to exact payback as they try to balance the scales of risk and reward and do not think making mistakes is a way of learning, but, rather, simply a mistake.

Surely somewhere between the naivetĂ© of praising mistakes as a way of learning and searching to assign blame a lá Benny, there is a better option. Finding that middle ground is the key. Imagine the result of Apollo 13 had Gene Kranz gone head hunting for someone to blame instead of compelling his team relentlessly to “work the problem.”

And therein lies the learning.

Mistakes fall into two general buckets: we thought things through incorrectly and did the wrong thing, or, we didn’t think things through and did the wrong thing. In the case of the latter you get only so many chances before you’re fired. It isn’t blame, its responsibility.

Its the mistakes of thought process – i.e., we just didn’t get to the right outcome – that present the learning opportunities attaching blame to will cripple. Senge wrote about learning organizations thirty years ago: he was onto something. We can learn organically if we are open to experience: analyzing how we got to the wrong outcome, who else should have been involved, what other factors we might have included. All these self-reviews occur when people are not afraid of blame – when the Bennys of the world stop headhunting and start searching for solutions.

Its simplistic and wrong to say mistakes are good for learning. They are mistakes and costly. The practice of assigning blame however is also wrong as it does nothing too surface the root causes of those mistakes. People are creative: they will find ways to avoid responsibility and action if they fear retribution for errors.

So before you’re tempted to find someone to blame, consider working the problem. One is simply an exercise in anger, while the other builds competence and confidence.

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