The Subtle Art of Avoiding Blame and Taking Responsibility
Fault and responsibility are not the same thing. If you are driving and another car hits you, it’s not necessarily your fault, but you must take at least some responsibility for dealing with the consequences.
Fault is about the past: something that has already happened. Responsibility is future-facing: what happens next?
Scrum Teams work on complex, adaptive problems. In complex environments, things can happen fast. Scrum Teams don’t dwell on the past for long, because the future is almost guaranteed to be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).
Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems — Scrum Guide
In this VUCA context, when we encounter difficulties, there is an easy option available. We can roll our eyes and blame those who we believe caused the difficulties.
It can be “difficult to know how to approach a challenging situation and easy to use VUCA as a crutch, a way to throw off the hard work” (Source: Nathan Bennett, HBR)
With imperfect outcomes, there is an easy tendency to assign blame and avoid genuine problem-solving.
Blame is a very human reaction borne out of instincts of self-preservation. When faced with a difficult situation, it is an entirely human need to know that the error was not ours.
However, in a complex environment, decisions of knowledge-workers drive progress towards solutions. If a blame mindset takes hold in a team, it can be a genuine impediment to this kind of creative risk-taking and therefore an impediment to progress. In other words, blame creates fear of failure and impedes creativity.
Everybody loves taking responsibility for successes, and Scrum Teams are no different.
“But taking responsibility for our problems is far more important, because that’s where the real learning comes from. (…) To simply blame others is only to hurt yourself.” (Mark Manson)
Consider an example where a team are evaluating options for building a solution. One of the team says ‘lets build it this way.’ The team agrees, carries on and makes progress. After a few weeks they have learned more about their solution, and realise that the original decision wasn’t perfect. Now they need to pivot and the cost of that is some rework.
In that situation, it would be easy to blame the decision-maker for the cost of re-work.
However, those assigning blame may have agreed with that decision at the time…
In a VUCA context, perfectly informed decisions are rare. Scrum Teams need to take small safe risks, like building something and learning from feedback. In this context, an imperfect decision is better than no decision.
For Scrum Teams in complex contexts, failing fast and understanding more about our problem is preferable to waiting for more information with no progress to show.
In the excellent ‘The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck’, Mark Manson describes a method for taking responsibility that Scrum Professionals will immediately relate to.
We all want to hear applause at Sprint Reviews, deal with happy customers, work in harmonious teams and enjoy working environments with healthy, creative conflict.
However, what happens when we are faced with the opposite?
At different points in our careers, we will all deal with disappointments at Sprint Reviews, unhappy customers and genuine conflict within teams. Blaming others for the causes of these issues will prevent us from taking responsibility for turning them around.
Taking responsibility and facing these challenges will help us to learn and grow as Scrum Professionals. Helpfully, a Scrum Mindset can offer us tangible ways to do that with more confidence.
This mindset involves Empiricism and Values.
“Three pillars uphold every implementation of empirical process control: transparency, inspection, and adaptation.” – Scrum Guide
When these challenges occur, we will do ourselves and our teams far better service by openly acknowledging them (transparency) and asking ourselves what we can do (inspect and adapt).
This will achieve far more than simply assigning blame.
Responsibility is not the easy path; instead it leads to greater learning and can helps remove important impediments to delivery of value in a Scrum Team’s context.
When on this path, Empiricism can be a container for evaluating whether your actions are having the right impact.
Manson’s Law of Avoidance states that “the more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.” (Mark Manson)
Are you avoiding any issues in your sphere of influence? Are you blaming others for a problem rather than taking responsibility for your part in resolving the issue?
Our values help us to navigate, and the Scrum Values (Courage, Openness, Focus, Respect and Commitment) are a particularly useful guide in complex environments such as those inhabited by Scrum Teams.
Courage exists in many forms. It takes courage to get past blame and accept responsibility.
Openness requires more than just transparency. You might need to be open to confront some of your own behaviours that contribute to these problems.
Focus on learning from failure, rather than blaming those who made decisions in an imperfect context.
Respect creative risk-taking, especially if failure is fast and provides opportunity to learn.
Your commitment to valuing responsibility over blame will show leadership. Humble leadership like this is exactly what Scrum Teams need.
Values assist our navigation. Empiricism confirms if we are on the right track.
“When viewed from this perspective, personal growth can actually be quite scientific. Our values are our hypotheses: this behaviour is good and important; that other behaviour is not. Our actions are the experiments; the resulting emotions and thought patterns are our data.” (Mark Manson)
Changing your mindset from blame to responsibility will help you learn and grow. Use your values, humility and the Scrum Values to guide your choices. Empiricism will help validate those decisions.
If you can develop this mindset, it will help you and your team to succeed with Scrum.