Blame Awareness is Universal

Up front: Blame awareness only works if you work towards blame awareness with all incidents, not just the ones that affect you.

Celebrating incidents can be a source of real joy. The surprise in failure modes, the understanding and concern folks express when things go wrong, the bonding of people who go through unfortunate surprises and come out the other side having developed some expertise and maybe a story to share. When we say we want to learn from incidents, it’s in transforming the stress of an unfortunate outcome into a chance to grow.

When developing a retrospective program, it’s often assumed the biggest challenge is to get buy-in from those around you and upwards. This is reasonable, as so much tech culture has a foundation of finding error and fixing it, typically casting that in the framing of “choice” (“The site broke because Will chose to deploy something risky”). This isn’t quite right, though. Gaining that momentum is hard, but maintaining that focus is where things often go askew. The impact, the distance to the problem, how obvious it feels in hindsight, all require a reminder of one core tenet in order to maintain this learning – people want to do their best work and act rationally (local rationality) with their decisions based on that governing principle.

Crime and Punishment

So what happens when failure strikes someone you feel is deserving? This is the hazard even the best of us trip on. To give a specific example, many of us lament the loss of Twitter into whatever X is now and recognize Elon Musk as being an abhorrent human being. The recurring failures of a dysfunctional organization are readily apparent even from the outside. And yet, still, I try my best not to take pleasure in an X outage (or Tesla, or Space X, etc.). I can look for folks to sympathize with – visas that need renewal, mortgages to pay, etc. even if it’s a struggle (“Why can’t they just find another job!?”) but that’s not the only reason why.

No, the really hard part is knowing that celebrating failure, in the best way Resilience Engineers seek to, only happens when we remove the need for karmic punishment. To move past this, we need to look at technical failures (perhaps not of morals or ethics, a completely different topic) with a restorative lens and not a retributive one.

And why not? Why can’t we say “Good, finally some justice in the world”?

Failures don’t care about Justice

Once you start choosing when failures are acceptable as punishment, you break down the bond of trust within your own teams. Once judgment of character becomes a choice in incidents, then it’s a matter of arbitration when to blame folks for “human error”. Failure becomes entangled with character flaws.

Failures are opportunities to grow. Strategies fail, best plans go to waste. Do we then choose not to learn from an incident, giving us a chance to gain this invaluable expertise? I don’t expect these sorts of organizations to have detailed and compassionate retrospective processes. A failure mode, even in those situations, can be concrete reminders, though, of our own proximity to disaster. The opportunity to learn still exists.

Equally, victims don’t simply disappear once a moral justification is applied. Using Tesla as an example, you could make the argument that failures in their vehicles stem from a moral failing in company leadership, if only an indirect causal relationship. Do we suspend schadenfreude in a car crash if it affects bystanders as well? Returning to X, what about individuals who rely on the service for emergency or life saving updates, lacking any infrastructure of their own elsewhere? Suddenly, that justification doesn’t seem so crystal clear.

Feelings still exist in Retrospectives

Here’s where we get to the heart of blame awareness, as opposed to the impossibility of blamelessness: we can acknowledge those feelings of “man, it’s about time they got their comeuppance” as a means of understanding why. We fall very quickly into causal reasoning for failures that rely on a universe that punishes the wicked, which then implies incidents (especially catastrophic ones) happen to those who deserve it.

There’s a lot of nuance here, naturally. Smarter people than I debate endlessly on the boundaries of empathy and compassion. I can’t split the hair fine enough and I’m no saint either when it comes to feeling disgruntled. I can recognize faults, though, and I do see a chance to try something that works better for us all. Here’s hoping.

Additional reading

Why ‘Blameless’ ‘Postmortems’ Can Feel Wrong – J. Paul Reed

Beyond Blameless – Rein Heinrichs


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