Blame Culture

Got a team that isn't performing? Won't raise issues in the retrospective? Acting like group of individuals rather than a team? Product owners constantly changing priorities mid-sprint? Scrum masters not protecting the team from interference? Team communicating via email instead of talking? That's quite a laundry list of dysfunction, isn't it? You would think you have a whole bunch of problems to solve, but if you are seeing all of these at once in a team that has been together for more than a sprint or two, chances are you only have one. It's a big one though. There is one really common dysfunction that can cause a whole range of problems. Usually, it's not a problem with the team, it's a problem with the wider organisation. What could well be to blame for your team's problems is...blame.

A corporate culture based on assigning blame for failure can manifest in a wide range of bad behaviours. The first casualty of a blame culture is trust. If everyone is frightened of being blamed for something, they will tend to start deflecting blame to others - "it's not my fault... Fred didn't get his part done in time...blame him!" Naturally, teamwork suffers as people retreat into self-protective shells and start communicating via documents and emails so they have evidence to back up their side of the story when blame time comes round. Naturally, this sort of thing makes teamwork pretty difficult. As soon as blame starts getting handed around, trust evaporates and with it goes teamwork.

In fact, a blame culture has toxic effects on everything, not just agile. I have seen really severe cases cause companies to implode, as no one would ever make a decision in case they got blamed for a failure. No one would do anything in case it went wrong and they got blamed. All they did was blame others for not doing anything. The company spun its wheels for a year or so then went bust. Although blame cultures are generally toxic, they are especially toxic in areas using agile practices, because agility relies on openness and trust, both of which are destroyed by a blame-driven culture.

The key to agile success is continuous learning - inspect and adapt. In a blame-driven culture, learning can't happen - no one is willing to make a change in case it doesn't work and they get blamed. The organisation becomes completely risk averse. All innovation and learning stops. The organisation stagnates. People get blamed for the stagnation. The cycle continues. A totally blame-driven organisation is already dead. It just hasn't stopped moving yet. Fortunately, most organisations aren't totally blame-driven. Unfortunately, most large (and many small) organisations do have some level of blame culture. Some are mild - disapproving looks and a stern talking to from the boss when your project goes over budget through no fault of your own, right up to wholesale sackings for the failure of someone's ill-conceived pet project.

So what do you do if you work somewhere that has a blame culture? Short of finding somewhere more pleasant to work, that is. That depends on how severe it is. If its a mild case, you can probably make a secure space for your team within the organisation. Get some buy-in from your local management that, within your team's space, failure is not blamed but is treated as valuable learning. Make sure you get a big visible commitment from your management that blame has no place here and really work to stamp out any examples you see, especially calling out management if they slip back into blame mode.

Give the team a safe space to work and they will start to come out of their protective shells and start to collaborate. It will take a while to undo old habits but it will be a much more pleasant place to work once you do.

If it's a severe case, the same applies, only more so. You really need to get in front of your local management and point out to them the issues that blame is causing. The usual reaction will be to blame the teams. This is where you really need some courage and a good relationship with your management (and hopefully a firm offer from somewhere else in your back pocket). This is where you need to point out to then that the teams are not to blame, they are just following the lead of their managers and if we want team behaviour to change, management behaviour needs to change as well. Not just that, but it needs to change first and in a big visible way. As Demming said - 

The workers are handicapped by the system, and the system belongs to the management.

If you survive that encounter, you will need to work with management to create a plan for a safe team space. Management will need to publicly commit to stopping the blame culture and will need to make some big, visible steps to address it. Having a "failure of the week" award for management can be a good step - the manager who made the biggest mistake of the week claims the trophy and tells the team what they learned as a result of their failure.

If management can't or won't commit to protecting the teams from blame, then agile has no real chance of success. They may go through the motions - standups, reviews, retros (that continually raise the same issues because nothing changes because people are afraid of decisions) but the benefits will be marginal. The real benefits from agility come through teamwork, openness and trust. None of those are possible in an environment that runs on blame. Time to start considering that offer in your back pocket.