The Organizational Blame Game

Failing your way to success

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison.

Failure at some point is inevitable. It will waste money, damage or destroy careers, deflate morale, and harm customers, clients and patients. Fortunately, given the right mind-set and culture, failure can also lead to great improvements within an organization. Learning from failure has the potential to improve our safety, efficiency, and chance at future success. While we don’t necessarily need to invite failure, we should embrace the opportunity to learn from failure when it comes to visit. Duke University Professor of Management Sim Sitkin, would consider the multitude of ways that Thomas Edison discovered how not to make a light bulb before he actually became successful, “intelligent failures”. Organizations which are uncomfortable with the idea of failure or are limited in their failure analyses to superficiality such as “policies were ignored” or “our competitors had more start-up funding” will not be able to take advantage of failure.

Dr. Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. She has a wealth of experience both in the academic and corporate world on how businesses respond to failure and recently wrote an excellent article on Strategies for Learning from Failure (Harvard Business Review, April, 2011, p. 48). In this article, Dr. Edmondson correctly identifies one of the largest impediments to benefiting from failure as the Blame Game. Those who have read my book by the same title will quickly recognize that Dr. Edmondson and I share the same sentiment. Whether it is in our personal or professional lives, no one likes to take the blame. Why would I voluntarily admit fault when to do so is to put my career and reputation on the line? If we can move beyond this stereotypic bias, “it’s somebody’s fault” toward a productive root cause analysis; we (the organization) will be rewarded. Let’s focus on “What happened?” rather than “Who did it?” The Organizational Blame Game is associated with a culture of not taking risks, inflexibility, lack of employee engagement, and covering up mistakes.  It is widely reported, as well as my personal experience, that most organizational failures are system issues – which may be improved upon, rather than blameworthy individual actions of intentional deviance from specific and well-laid out policies and procedures.  Even the case of an individual who unintentionally deviated from specifically prescribed practices is a systems issue which may be corrected with education, training, proper support, and/or alterations in work conditions or work hours.

Organizations should look toward high risk industries such as the military, aircraft carriers, and nuclear power plants to appreciate that cultures that go beyond the blame game and make it safe to admit and report failures are most often the ones with the highest standards for safety and performance. These are highly intricate and evolving industries where process failures will occur. Ignoring small failures that did not obviously result in harm or in the case of the healthcare industry, did not actually reach a patient, is a perfect set-up for disaster. Near misses are blessings in disguise and should be treated as valuable learning opportunities. In high risk industries, employees are encouraged to think of how systems may fail. It is this forward thinking approach that is vital to continually assessing new strategies and initiatives without being self-limiting and abandoning innovation. Fortunately, the healthcare industry has finally started catching on to the advantages of going beyond blame. However, it is still true that most hospitals still operate on the assumption that things will be fine if nobody screws up – dangerous thinking.

While many companies claim to perform blame-free failure analyses, the truth is that the majority of failures are still treated as blameworthy.  To go beyond the Organizational Blame Game we must assume that there is a lesson to be learned and search for it. Ultimately, you’ll find that once this becomes part of the corporate culture, the person or people involved in the apparent failure may actually be the best contributors to the healing process and the best suited to make significant recommendations toward a successful future.