Stop Blaming and Start Learning!

Empathy as a Foundation for Expertise

Learning from failure is something we imagine to happen naturally — and sometimes it does. You will instinctively think twice before touching the stove top after getting burned. However, as work becomes more complex and involves more people and components, learning from failure becomes more daunting and uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable because it involves flexing muscles that most of us aren’t used to using. However, we are doing ourselves a deep disservice if we let that uncomfortable feeling hold us back. There are concrete things you can do to build good habits in your organization that not only make failure less painful, but make it truly transformative.

First we need to unravel all the baggage that is contained in the word “failure.” To deem something a failure invokes linear methods of thinking, which are overly simplistic and old-fashioned. In fact, Sidney Dekker, a professor and renowned author on the topic of system failure and human error, coined the term “Old View” to describe this worldview.

The reality is that the line between right and wrong is a matter of perspective. It is subjective and often drawn by people in power and assumed by (or imposed upon) everyone else. Furthermore, a world without “failure” involves only linear progress where nothing unexpected ever occurs. We know that such a thing is impossible, especially when humans and complex systems are involved.

Treating individuals as the sole proprietor of complex problems is a way of thinking that protects dominant social norms and serves to entrench the status quo.

The impulse to assign blame to individuals and dole out corresponding punishment (which can be subtle or overt) and leave it at that is deeply damaging. It’s a patriarchal and insidious practice to which our society has become so addicted that we rarely call it into question.

This process buries anything that may undermine or raise questions about the efficacy of the way things are. When something goes wrong, the dominant practice within our culture and justice system is to boil it down over a pressure source (for example, a court of law or the media) until we reduce something complex into the face of someone we can punish.

We have come to assume that failures are acts for which someone is responsible — it’s just a question of figuring out who. This is a seductive thought because it supports the fantasy that bad things happen because of bad people and if we surgically remove them from society then we can live a blissful existence where outcomes are predictable and everything happens exactly as planned.

This is not how a complex system works. In fact, the opposite is true. A complex system features a large number of interacting components that are nonlinear, unpredictable and self-organize according to selective pressures and competing demands.

The human brain is a complex system, so is the planet Earth.

In a complex system, the whole can never be reduced to a sum of its parts because everything is constantly in flux. The scope of a complex system is extensive because it includes not just a list of all the diverse actors involved, but the relationships between those actors as well.

With complex systems, there is no such thing as a root cause (or one individual responsible) because the connection between cause and effect is too nuanced to be determined in a linear way.

Therefore, we must examine our knee-jerk tendency to blame and replace it with the knowledge that one narrative will never do justice to the complex systems in which we live.

Because complexity (the product of two inevitable forces: change and time) will continue to engender “failures,” we might as well claim them and share ownership for examining them as a community. Doing so will make it safe to examine deep influences that lie below the surface of incidents, rather than focusing solely on the superficial factors. Failures are inevitable, and invaluable.

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Being satisfied with oversimplified blame narratives cheats us of deeper learning opportunities. We need to re-frame blame into a conversation that seeks restorative solutions — rather than retributive ones.

So, what do we do about this? Invest in organizational learning.

Sometimes it feels like we have to work against the grain to get a group of people to sit down and learn from a failure — which I will from this point forward refer to as accidents because to name something an “failure” is a judgement call, which is exactly the tendency we need to unravel.

Please note here and throughout the duration of this piece I am talking explicitly about “accidents”, by which I mean unexpected events or surprising outcomes, not malicious actions.

Many people are allergic to the idea of examining accidents (it’s uncomfortable to sit in a room with your coworkers and honestly examine a chain of events). It can feel like these sorts of meetings are time-consuming and divert precious resources from our day-to-day jobs.

It takes a lot of energy to make the time to be present and listen actively to your co-workers talk about how they do their jobs. However, the learnings that inevitably surface are worth the investment, and it will start to feel more natural and less uncomfortable with practice — especially when you begin to reap the long-term rewards.

The truth is what ultimately makes us more productive in the long run doesn’t always seem efficient in the short term. (For more on this, check out Charles Duhigg and his recent New York Times article about what makes an effective team.)

There is inherent value in witnessing personal accounts of the perspectives that are the building blocks of a complex system.

Building a library of vicarious experiences and cultivating empathy for others is the bedrock of organizational learning and gives you a more robust understanding of the world and our place in it.

Empathy is at the root of grasping complexity. You can’t untangle a complex system into neat rows, but you can become aware of the complexity itself. Acknowledging that complexity exists is more valuable than grasping the separate inner-workings of each system’s components. It involves perception of the dynamic and unpredictable forces that govern the relationships between all the moving parts. This line of thinking fosters empathy for other people involved, the positions they are in and the pressures they are feeling.

The goal is to gain some awareness about the complexity of whatever you are examining. If that is achieved, you have succeeded.

There is something here that works in our favor: it’s fun to hear narratives, and personal stories are compelling.

As Gary Klein noted in his Critical Decision method for eliciting knowledge, because of the compelling way in which people tell stories about memorable or traumatic events, retention rate is fairly high. In other words, you remember cautionary tales because you imagine that what’s being described could happen to you. This is why narratives are often used for training purposes. In fact, “accounts of the experiences of others are often sufficiently vivid to serve as additions to the experience base.” (Klein, G.A. & Hoffman, R., 217) We can actually build our understanding of the world by listening to people tell accounts of their lives and work.

We unlock this concept simply being present in the room during organizational learning practices, such as retrospectives or postmortems. In these settings, people expand their perception of the general principles that govern a community, and the micro and macro forces at play. It provides a basis for improved communication and collaboration by broadening people’s schemas for understanding trans-departmental fundamentals. This foundation allows for a quicker recovery from accidents which means more time innovating, and less time cleaning up messes.

At first blush, this strategy may seem inefficient, but what it costs up-front it makes up for in long-term effectiveness. What you stand to gain is a psychological shift in your organization where accidents are not something to be ashamed of, but invitations to become aware of things you would not otherwise have realized.

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You can then address underlying factors as opposed to combating surface issues as they arise, like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. This empowers your entire organization, enables a higher caliber of working relationships and ultimately improves the end-product.

In short, deconstructing accidents as a group broaden our knowledge base, create expertise and make us all better at our jobs.

The understanding gained by the types of conversations generated in these meetings builds expertise across the entire organization.

We are cultivating an expertise about how the organization functions as an ecosystem. The more experts you have at your organization, the better equipped you are to solve complex problems. If you consider expertise as a resource, then it makes sense to invest time and energy in practices that develop experts.

The key takeaway here is that it’s not that experts know more, but that they have more diverse knowledge. It logically follows then that it benefits your organization to invest time and energy in learning-oriented, listening-focused and empathy-building activities such as retrospectives because they build expertise — and not the kind that you can teach, but the kind that develops organically.

Articulating the theoretical benefits is the first step, but demonstrating the value on a practical level is where this initiative can grind to a halt.

At the root of this work is a thoughtful expansion of the scope of what is valued and shifting the scale from short to long-term.

What we are talking about here is the difference between potential and actual. It’s like comparing the value of a beam of wood to a seed. One is pre-processed, easy to measure, and you can use it to build a house. The other is about potential, its value will be demonstrated with time, once it grows into a tree.

There are a few straightforward benefits to developing these practices within your organization. For example, consider the money you save by training experts within the organization, as opposed to hiring expensive outside consultants to tell you what is wrong and how to fix it.

The most powerful way to think about this, however, is in terms of loss aversion.

The fundamental question here is: What is the cost of NOT learning?

What are we not looking at?

Whose voices aren’t we hearing?

Can we imagine alternative ways to have conversations, do work, include more voices, bring to light what is generally unseen? Because that is what’s needed, in a dire way. The more time we waste in practices that are not inclusive, and not inquisitive, the more we are losing our grip on reality.

Ultimately, by acknowledging complexity we rise above blame. We can then create a safe, empathetic environment for examining accidents instead of holding inquisitions that prowl for the root cause of failures.

Until you embed practices that skillfully and generously examine the unknown, you are cheating your organization out of an exponential level of learning opportunities and missing countless chances to build experts within your community.

Cultivating empathy is a practical advantage because it creates conditions that are conducive to learning and develops a baseline of organizational expertise across diverse roles.

We need to start valuing descriptions, not explanations. Explanations feel good, but they are always reductive, and often judgmental. Linear thinking gets us to an explanation (any answer is better than none, the simpler the better) whereas a description gives us something more holistic, the value of which is sometimes harder to prove in our society, especially because it’s often messy.

It’s time to advocate for a new level of comfort with ambiguity, the unknown and the inevitability of change (especially in dynamic, rapid-growth industries).

Here’s the reality: we are hemorrhaging learning all the time. It is all over the place. It’s pooling in the floors, it’s dripping from the walls.

Lucky for us, learning is an infinite resource.

We need to notice the learning, to collect it and to create containers to preserve it. We need to make learning safe and to develop healthy habits around learning practices. We must stop blaming for failures.

We need to adopt a new mindset; a mindset that repairs a rampant misunderstand about the nature of cause and effect in the face of complexity. We need to shift from fault-finding and blame-assigning to the realization that accidents are not only inevitable, but fruitful. They need to be coaxed out of hiding spots, made to feel safe and then invited to sit down at the table with us.

Founder of Business Casual, MS in Change Management from The New School, formerly @Etsy http://thisisbusinesscasual.com/

Founder of Business Casual, MS in Change Management from The New School, formerly @Etsy http://thisisbusinesscasual.com/