Fix The Problem, Not The Blame

fix, verb.

  1. To repair, improve, return to service, heal, remunerate, compensate, or prevent from recurring. “She fixed the problem”, “the doctor fixed my bad knee”, or “we’ll fix it”.
  2. To immobilize, assign, stick, ascribe, prevent from moving, or render unchangeable. “Fix your eyes on this”, “it’s a fix”, or “the anchor fixes the boat in place”.

When a problem comes along, four fundamental questions travel with it: why it happenedhow we can fix it, how we can prevent it, and who’s to blame for it.

They’re all relevant. They’re all important. But if your aim is to fix the problem, do your best to let go of whose fault it was. Spend your energy instead on understanding what caused it and how to repair the damage.

Sure, problems are often caused by a person’s mistakes or poor decisions. That definitely belongs in your root-cause analysis, and you should make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. But once you’ve figured out why the problem happened and how to fix it and prevent it in future, it’s just not that useful to focus on whose fault it was. Fixing the blame—assigning it to a person—takes time away from other tasks and builds resentment, and you don’t get much value in return.

When people fix blame, what are they achieving? Okay, you’ve figured out whose fault the problem was… so what? How does that help you?

It certainly doesn’t make the current problem go away: if you break a bone, the doctor can’t fix it by saying “you should have been more careful!”. If your kid gets a bad grade, you can’t improve it by saying “I told you over and over again to study harder!”. Often there are action items in there—cautious behavior, better study skills—that are useful in making a prevention plan for the future, but the blaming part doesn’t add much value.

Yet we do this all the time. How often have you heard people yelling, when there’s a problem, about who should have done something differently? Shouting that someone else did something dumb? Arguing about responsibility and blame as if those things will somehow change the situation?

We rely on blame, thinking that it will motivate others not to make the same mistakes again, thinking that if we can shame people hard enough, they’ll stop screwing up. Sometimes, it’s even true: blame does motivate people to change their behavior. But it’s a poor tool even in the best craftsmen’s hands, and there are better ones available.

Accountability is important. I’m not asking you to pretend that people don’t contribute to problems, nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t hold them accountable. I’m saying that blame—the hot, emotional, shame-filled Red Hat concept—isn’t very useful. Determine the causes, address them directly, and keep moving.

Fix the problem, not the blame.

Many thanks to Karen Butler Easter, who taught me both this concept and this framing in my early days as a manager.

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