You keep talking about how designers have to take responsibility, but the real power within organizations is with engineers and product managers. All the shit is their fault, not ours!
Growing up a little Catholic boy, I was taught the most important of all the sacraments: the assignment of blame. And unlike the other sacraments, such as baptism and first communion, which had to be performed by a priest, the assignment of blame was the people’s sacrament — it could be performed by anyone. In fact, it was encouraged. And no one was better at performing this ritual than my mother. My mother would enter a room while saying, “Who’s to blame for… ” and then quickly take in the scene before settling on a predicate. Which she always did. There was always an opportunity to practice the holy sacrament, because there was always something that could be blamed on someone.
“I have a cold.”
“It’s your fault for not wearing a hat.”
“I need new glasses.”
“It’s your fault for reading too much.”
“I got beat up at school.”
“It’s your fault for having a smart mouth.” (She was partially right about this one.)
Needless to say, growing up in a culture of blame will fuck you up, especially when blame comes with repercussions, as it often did. (I won’t go into them here.) But you quickly realize the path to survival lies in not being blamed for things. So what to do when the assignment of blame was non-negotiable? Luckily, I had brothers. And as any herd animal knows, when being chased by a predator you don’t need to be the fastest in the herd, you just can’t be the slowest. I got really good at deflecting blame for things onto my brothers. As did they. So growing up, we learned the key to survival was to make sure there was someone else who could be blamed. Our hands didn’t have to be clean, they just couldn’t be the dirtiest.
From what I’ve seen in the workplace, most of us grew up in some form of this dynamic, Catholic or not. (By the way, I’m an alumni now. But I still get to give them shit, which I enjoy.) When something goes wrong, our first instinct is to figure out who we can throw in front of the person looking to assign blame, be it engineers, product managers, a client, or someone in leadership. How often have you said or heard some version of “If/when this goes wrong it won’t be my/our fault”?
What if, instead of cultures of blame, we were brought up with and worked in cultures of opportunity?
Too often in the workplace our goal isn’t to do good work, but to cover our ass. We even have an acronym for it: CYA. Cover your ass. Protect yourself from blame, possible criticism, repercussions, penalties, getting fired, or in the worst of circumstances even going to jail. It’s why we have higher-ups sign off on things. The signature of a higher-up means that your ass is covered because they’ve taken a step forward in the blame-taking line. And to be fair, covering your ass isn’t the dumbest thing to do when many of those same organizations live on the blame model themselves. When things go wrong your boss looks for a scapegoat. You want to make sure it’s not you.
An eye for an eye and now everyone is blind. But there’s another way. What if, instead of being brought up with and working in cultures of blame, we were brought up with and worked in cultures of opportunity? Fire up the kumbaya machine!
I blame Cory Doctorow
I’ve been a fan of Cory Doctorow’s writing since Down & Out In the Magic Kingdom, both his fiction and non-fiction. He’s a very good writer and spins a hell of a yarn. A couple of years ago, I was reading Walkaway, which had just been released, and something jumped out at me. It’s a great book and I encourage you to read it, so I’ll try to explain this without revealing too much of the plot. The book is set in a dystopian near-future (as opposed to our dystopian present) where some people opt out of society and go off into the woods to set up their own communities. These communities are egalitarian by design, so there’s no one around to assign work or to level blame. So when someone notices something that needs to be done they either do it or throw it on a job board. If you’re looking for something to do, you go to the job board and pick a job and do it. But what if you slack off and do a crappy job of it? Well, the cycle just repeats. Someone notices it needs to be done and either does it or throws it on the job board.
So here’s the thing. I’m reading along, thoroughly enjoying this book and I got to that part and my core seized up. What. The actual. Fuck. Someone just got away with doing a shitty job. Hold up. Someone needs to be blamed for doing a shitty job here, Cory! We can’t get away with letting someone do a shitty job! Honestly, it made me angry. (I just laughed out loud writing that last sentence, by the way.) Nonetheless, I kept reading. And eventually got the point.
The important thing was that the job got done. Yes, the first person who took the job had the opportunity to do the job well. And yes, they should have. But bringing the community to a halt to assign blame and prescribe punishment wasn’t bringing the job closer to being done well, either. If anything, it was scaring off anyone else who might’ve been willing to take the job. If the goal was to get the job done the thing that made the most sense was to give someone else an opportunity to do it.
Reader, I called my mother when I figured this out!
“Hey, Mom, it’s been a while.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Let’s go for a drive
I grew up before GPS systems. And with a father who refused to read a map. This meant that any trip to a place we weren’t familiar with was an opportunity for sacramental display, with my mother, who couldn’t read English, being required to navigate us to the right place.
“We missed the turn!”
“And whose fault is that!?”
Trips were exhausting. And quite often involved crying.
I don’t drive much, what with living in a small city with semi-functioning public transportation. But every once in a while I have to rent a car. For example, a few weeks ago my wife hiked a portion of the John Muir trail with some friends and I had to rent a car to pick her up at Yosemite. I didn’t know the route so I turned on Google Maps and got turn-by-turn directions. Here’s the amazing thing about Google Maps: You can miss as many turns as you want and it never yells at you or blames you for fucking up. It just reroutes—it looks for an opportunity to get the job done.
If we can build software that focuses on opportunity instead of blame, surely we can build workplaces that do the same, right? Maybe? I hope so.
The most important thing about bad work isn’t whose fault it is that the work is bad. The most important thing to do is to fix that bad work.
So everyone’s just gonna fuck everything up and I have to pick up all the pieces?
Does this mean we shouldn’t hold people accountable when they fuck up? Absolutely not. But it does mean that having someone else to blame or being able to cover your own ass shouldn’t be the standard we aspire to. Yes, your product manager may have more power in the organization than you do. Yes, decisions may be getting made above your pay grade. All that may be true. But the work is still coming through you. You have an opportunity to do good work. Take it.
Does this mean you’re gonna end up fixing a lot of things that other people screwed up? Maybe, but the important part of that sentence is that those things are now fixed!
The most important thing about bad work isn’t whose fault it is that the work is bad. It’s that it is bad work. The most important thing to do is to fix that bad work.
Assigning blame might be a useful way to keep bad work from happening again, but that’s more akin to finding a problem in the production line and rectifying it. It would be stupid not to do that.
But when assigning blame becomes a survival tool to make sure that our ass is covered and we’re not the ones being scapegoated, then it’s a useless tool and it points to a problem in the culture. We behave like this because the system rewards us for behaving like this.
And ultimately, bad work is everybody’s fault. Good work means everyone availed themselves of the opportunity.
If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).