Drive Accountability and Ownership by Embracing Mistakes
14 September, 2020
One of the common themes with many dysfunctional or poorly functioning teams is that they start becoming afraid of making mistakes because they have been heavily criticized for it. Shipping delays and production issues can often lead to a finger-pointing culture. That spirals to people feeling unsafe in their jobs and trying to protect themselves rather than doing the right thing.
The most impactful thing I did was to introduce “failure forums” at the end of my staff meetings. This forum consisted of individual staff members talking about any mistakes they made since the last meeting and what impact it had. I would always follow that by asking them one key question: if they had to do it all over again, what would they have done differently? The first person who went would receive a booby prize - in our case, a rubber chicken. That person would pass the chicken on to the next person whose failure was deemed to be even worse. In general “worse” was determined by the severity of impact to production quality and/or customer impact, but the decision was ultimately made at the discretion of the current chicken holder.
Starting this process up was not easy because, of course, people initially were not comfortable admitting their mistakes. To encourage them I had to kick off the process in a way that would concretely demonstrate that it was a safe space. Using the team’s leadership staff was the key. I went to the CTO and a couple of architects and told them I needed them to stand up in the first meeting and talk about things they failed at in the last two weeks. I joined two of them sharing my failures and that showed people that it was acceptable to make mistakes.
Over time as the team became more empowered to deal with mistakes, the actual number of mistakes went down. The meetings were not simply cathartic, but instead served as a valuable process that allowed the org to self-correct. In discussing failures, it would become clear that many issues were symptomatic of an underlying technical or process issue, which the team would then go and fix without being told. In this way it strongly drove a culture of ownership, not just accountability.
We made the whole process fun -- people would throw the chicken around (it made a very loud noise when squeezed) whomever ended up with the chicken would have to keep it on their desks until the next time. It became a source of banter and in its own way, pride, as it had evolved to be a rite of passage.
On the flip side, we also introduced a peer-nominated contest that highlighted the excellence of work and where people who went above and beyond would be nominated. I kicked it off by nominating somebody, describing what they did to impress and the rest of the team would follow along with their own nominations. The winner from the previous meeting was charged with deciding which of these nominations was the most worth, again at their discretion, and that person would receive the trophy of excellence, which would be proudly displayed on their desk until the next contest. Perhaps somewhat camp, but I selected a large Voltron robot to symbolize the power of teamwork (it was made of 5 separate robots that could be combined). It had the benefit of being awesome and thus sought-after.
- It was important to tell people to expect that if they (or their team) made a mistake they should expect that I would get very involved, asking them what happened, what we are doing to fix it, and what they should do next time - but that they would not be punished. I told them that my involvement means that I’m trying to make sure we learned from it and we own the experience of failing and learning. Over time people (especially the leadership staff) learned that if they provided this information proactively I would not get involved at all. In this way they learned that I trusted them, while at the same time I was given regular transparency into how the org was functioning. A win-win.
- Creating a safe culture boosted morale. It also drove the ownership for improvements and made people feel responsible for making things better; because they were able to own up to the mistakes and talk about other peoples’ mistakes, they became invested in fixing underlying causes. I did need to moderate these discussions to make sure people thought critically about the ROI involved in fixing these things; there were certainly cases where fixing the root issue would have been prohibitively expensive when it could be remedied via process, and occasionally just chalked up to the cost of doing business.
- Accepting mistakes teaches people how to interact with leadership. This is especially beneficial for younger people who are more timid in dealing with authority figures. Providing accessibility opens things up and helps them grow faster in their careers.
- Institutionalizing a blameless culture made work more fun and increased engagement. It also built loyalty because people understood that I was trying to help them do a good job and that always resonates strongly with engineers.
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