Who’s the best person to fix this?

I hate blame cultures. If you hate them too, then you don’t need me to tell you why. If you don’t, you probably haven’t worked in one yet.

At one client, they have a strong dislike for blame cultures. Unfortunately, most of the development team have worked in one at some point or another, and it’s hard to get out of certain habits.

“Ah, it’s all right,” one developer said, looking at a bug. “It’s not our fault.”

“I’ve been learning a bit of NLP,” I said, “and it suggests that the words we use can sometimes affect the way we think. I know that you’re not really thinking about blame when you use those words. Even so, can we avoid them? Could you maybe ask the question, Who’s the best person to fix this? instead of Whose fault is it?

“All right. I’m still not the best person to fix this, though.”

“Well, who is?”

“I think George broke the build. I mean, George is the best person to fix it.” The developer called across, “George, can you look at the build a sec and see if you could fix it, please?”

“Oops!” said George. “I’m on it.”

So he fixed the build, and the team started working. A while later, one of the QAs called me over. “Liz, I’m looking at this bug… did your team cause it?”

I shook my head. “It looks like the database might be down.”

“Oh,” the QA said sadly. “I can’t blame you, then.”

I winced. “Why do you need to know whose fault it was?” I asked.

“So I know who to assign it to.”

So I explained about the new words we were trying to use instead of “blame” and “fault”.

“Oh!” she brightened up. “Well, are you able to help me fix it, then?”

“Maybe one of my team can help. Hold on!” So I asked around. “Who’s the best person to kick Mary’s database? It looks as if it’s fallen over.”

“I can do that!” Fred announced.

It occurred to me at that point that, if we were still asking, “Whose fault is this?” then Fred would be reluctant to help out, because it would insinuate that it was somehow his fault. By avoiding the words and asking, “Who’s the best person to fix this?” anyone can volunteer.

Suddenly, by providing an alternative to “fault” and “blame”, we’ve made it OK for people to volunteer to contribute. That can only be a good thing.

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7 Responses to Who’s the best person to fix this?

  1. Jason Yip says:

    This reminds me of how John Shook talks about the difference between authority-focus (“who’s job is this?”) and responsibility-focus (“what’s the right thing to do?”). There’s an excerpt from his Managing to Learn book here: http://www.lean.org/downloads/mtl_page_81.pdf

  2. Gabriel Schenker says:

    In French there is a proverb saying “C’est le ton qui fait la musique.”. Or translated: “It’s the tone that makes the music”. Just changing one single tone for another one can change the whole thing.
    Your finding is also compatible with the one that you always should start with something positive (before starting to talk about the not so positive) when giving feedback to a person. The person will then be open to your critique.

  3. liz says:

    Think it’s the guys who invented NLP who are the smart ones, to be honest. I’m still learning, and continuously amazed, by how powerful it can be.

  4. Mike Rotch says:

    I’m constantly amazed at how much external consultants can be paid to come up with this tripe whilst sitting at their desks designing witches hats.

  5. liz says:

    Mmm, that would be the day that I worked through my lunch hour and ended up staying till 6:30. There’ve been a few of those. If you’re one of the people paying for my time and don’t think I’m worth it then please come and have a chat – otherwise, let them worry about it!

    (You are of course welcome to chat at any point – please appreciate that there may be many valuable things we’re doing that you don’t have insight into. I shall write a blog post about what happened with the hats… in my own time, of course!)

  6. Fascinating that we’re thinking about the same topic at roughly the same time, although from slightly different perspectives.

    http://www.stevenlist.com/blog/2009/02/03/whose-fault/

    Nice.

    Thanks, Andy!

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