What is a blameless culture?

The way we work and the culture we create is vitally important, not only to the happiness and well-being of employees, but also, has a real impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of teams. One of the things which, in my experience, makes a huge positive impact is having a blameless culture in your team.

What do we mean by a blameless culture? A blameless culture is an environment in which everyone feels safe to make mistakes or to fail to achieve goals. More than that, it’s an environment in which teams accept as a given that everyone is trying their best.

That isn’t to say that teams should be happy with not achieving goals or making mistakes, nor should they ignore them. It also doesn’t mean that from a leadership perspective we can’t give feedback on performance, both positive and negative. Rather, it’s important to focus on the underlying cause of problems, on understanding them with an aim to avoiding them in the future, over pointing fingers.

What happens if it is not present?

There are certain problems that can easily arise when a blameless culture isn’t promoted within a team.

Firstly, teams can create a lot of unnecessary overhead in the form of bloated processes that are driven by a fear of being held accountable. In a previous career, I worked for the military in what was most certainly not a blameless culture. On arriving at a new station after being posted in, service personnel were required to read station Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This usually took the form of one or more large binders, filled with documentation containing every conceivable aspect of life on base, what you were allowed to do, what you were not allowed to do and processes that should be followed for given scenarios. Much like huge Terms of Service documents you are required to acknowledge before using certain software, staff were required to sign to say they had read and understood SOPs. Inevitably most people would give them a cursory glance and then sign the book and get on with the day however, having done so, they were then accountable for any mistakes made which were covered by the SOPs. Even if you did read the whole thing, it’s unlikely you would ever retain all the information and therefore, a lot of time was wasted on a process which, ultimately, only served as a way to hold people to account.

In the tech industry, I’m sure we’ve all seen or heard of seemingly crazy processes by companies where staff are required to take screenshots of things, print out spreadsheets or other procedures that have arisen as a way to either hold people to account or else as a defence against being held accountable.

Promoting a blameless culture means teams don’t need to create unnecessary processes in order to cover themselves and leadership don’t require the ability to trace problems back to an individual.

Another issue that can arise when we don’t have a blameless culture is that people can be discouraged from raising issues. Nobody wants to get a colleague in trouble by pointing out mistakes and problems. Even if an issue is not obviously anyone’s fault, teams will be put off pointing out problems if there’s a chance that the hunt for the source of the issue could lead back to them.

This relates closely to asking for help. In a team with a blameless culture, team members feel comfortable and confident in asking for help on issues, regardless of their seniority. While it may seem that a team without that culture would be more likely to ask questions and check understanding to reduce risk, often the reverse is true, especially among more senior team members who may feel (often incorrectly) that they should know the answers and not need to ask. Specifically that by asking questions they are highlighting a lack of understanding on their own part which may be used against them when things go wrong.

Lastly, failing to promote a blameless culture can foster an “us and them” mentality between team members and leadership and also between teams. Team members can risk focusing on deflecting blame onto other teams or team members when issues arise, rather than focusing on solving the underlying problems. There’s an added risk that teams fail to pull together to solve issues as they consider it to be someone else’s problem. In the worst case scenario this can risk creating resentment between teams or team members and lead to the collapse of effective teamwork.

Promoting a blameless culture

If these are the risks, what are the solutions? How do we foster and promote a blameless culture in our own teams? Agile development practices can help us here. Agile was originally devised partially as a way to help technical people and business people work more effectively together and working as a single team, pulling in the same direction is very much aligned with the goal of creating a blameless culture. One of the main marks of an Agile team is that they regularly question their processes and adapt based on experience. If we are going to regularly question what we do as a team and how we do it, for example with a Retrospective, it is vital that teams feel safe to explore problems and solutions. The retro prime directive states that:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

This concept is fundamental to fostering a blameless culture and should be reiterated at the start of every retrospective to ensure that team members really understand they are safe to raise issues and talk about problems without blame or judgement.

Alongside this, it is important to take this attitude with you outside the Retrospective. In reality, we all know that it may not always be true to say everyone is doing their best however, it’s beneficial for the whole team to proceed under the assumption that this is the case. When there are problems and setbacks, ensure you are focused on how to solve them and learn from them and not on whose fault it was. It can be useful even to celebrate mistakes, to call out the value in finding issues early or understanding the holes in a system or process before it becomes a bigger issue.

Lastly, it’s important that leadership does more than just pay lip service to this concept, that they are seen to be genuinely promoting it. If team members see mistakes and setbacks being handled without finger pointing and that there is a genuine desire to simply understand and learn from the problems as a team, they will be more confident in their work and more effective as a team.

In closing then, I personally think that great teams work best when they truly embody the spirit of the first part of the Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could.