in Culture, Information Technology

Let’s Stop Using The Term “Blameless Culture”

In the move to create humane work environments where we don’t finger-point and engage in witch hunts (good), we’ve created systems in which roles & responsibilities are unclear (bad). I find the term “blameless culture” often synonymous with (sometimes willful) lack of clarity around roles & responsibilities. I wish we would stop using it.

The concept of blamelessness as applied to modern companies has noble origins. It surfaced in today’s “devops” organizations through the vehicle of the “blameless post-mortem”; that is, a retrospective, held after a major incident, in order to a) learn from the failure and b) avoid future failures of a similar type from occurring. In the context of such a process specifically, blamelessness is extremely valuable, because blaming individuals would lead to loss of valuable factual information about both the incident and the individuals’ motivations for taking certain actions at certain times during the incident handling. This is admirable as the goals here are to find out why something transpired the way that it did, learn from those events, and engage in continual improvement of one’s processes.

The trouble arises when we say things like we have a “blameless culture” when in fact what we mean is that we conduct IT incident post-mortems in a blameless way. In so doing we confuse blame and accountability. To use an example specifically from IT operations: Not all system administrators are good at their jobs. Some of them cause incidents because of poor judgement or thought processes, and there is a pattern of them doing so. Now, it’s right to not fire a system administrator solely over one incident (assuming they didn’t intentionally cause it). But it would be easy to use the term “blameless culture” to mean that the system administrator receives full blanket immunity from disciplinary actions for anything they ever do, so long as they admitted to it in a post-mortem meeting. This would be wrong and not in the best interests of the company, because it would send a message that system administrators are not accountable to their actions in the large.

Applying the term “blameless culture” company-wide is problematic in that many domains outside of IT do not conduct post-mortems (blameless or not) at all. For example, when was the last time your sales organization held one to discover why they lost a large deal to a competitor? Now your company has two problems: a lack of clear accountability, and no process in place to neutrally analyze failures and recommend process improvements. Not only that, but even if that domain did conduct blameless post-mortems, there would be no clear owner accountable for ensuring those improvements take place. I call this “post-mortem theatre”, where the charade of conducting a post-mortem is more highly valued than the actual process improvement. The net effect is that the company has cargo-culted a term, blamelessness, which had useful origins, stripped it of any of its good attributes, and created a company culture which is actually detrimental to the health of that firm.

In business we talk a lot about accountability, and I believe we would all agree that it is a good strategy so long as it is not synonymous with childish tactics like finger-pointing, passive-aggressiveness, ad hominem attacks, and so on. Accountability, after all, leads to clarity for all involved. (For product development organizations, I particularly like Intercom’s article on who — out of the designer, the engineering lead, and the product manager — is accountable for what.) Yes, clear accountability does mean that, at the senior level, a serious failure in one area means that the executive gets fired, even though there were many contributing factors to that failure. Ironically, though, clear delineation of responsibilities forces executives to work across silos (e.g a VP of Sales that is forced to develop a relationship with VP of Product to create product features that sales can sell) if for no other reason than self-preservation. It’s not a perfect system, but I’d much rather have the clarity of an imperfect system than an unclear one.

So please, no more “blameless cultures” when what you mean is that you conduct blameless post-mortems in IT. It’s misleading and doesn’t create the outcomes you think it will.