The Blame Game

March 5, 2009

Hal Pomeranz, Deer Run Associates

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

from the movie “War Games” (1983)

One classic pathology of low-performing IT organizations is that when an outage occurs they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who’s fault it is, rather than working the problem.  Dr. Jim Metzler has even coined a new metric for this activity: Mean Time To Innocence (MTTI), defined as the average time it takes each part of the IT Operations organization to demonstrate that it’s not responsible for the outage.  Whether you call it a “Witch Hunt” or “The Blame Game” or identify it with some other term, it’s a huge waste of the time and ends up making everybody involved look like a complete ignoramus.  It’s also one of the classic signs to the rest of the business that IT Operations is completely out of touch, because otherwise they’d be trying to solve the problem rather than working so hard at finding out whose fault it is.

I’m so intolerant of this kind of activity that I will often accept the blame for things I’m not responsible for just so we can move out of the “blame” phase into the “resolution” phase.  As the CIO in Metzler’s article so eloquently put it, “I don’t care where the fault is, I just want them to fix it.”   At the end of the day, nobody will remember whose fault it is, because once the problem is addressed they’ll forget all about it in the rush of all the other things they have to do.  At most they’ll remember the “go-to guy/gal” who made the problem go away.

To illustrate, let me tell you another story from my term as Director of IT for the Internet skunkworks of a big Direct Mail Marketing company.  We were rolling out a new membership program, and as an incentive we were offering the choice of one of three worthless items of Chinese-made junk with each new membership.  I’m talking about the kind of stuff you see as freebie throw-ins on those late-night infomercials– book lights, pocket AM/FM radios, “inside the shell” egg scramblers, etc.  The way the new members got their stuff is that we passed a fulfillment code to the back-end database at corporate that triggered the warehouse mailing the right piece of junk to the new member’s address.

About a week and a half into the campaign our customer support center started getting lots of angry phone calls: “Hey! I requested the egg scrambler and got this crappy book light instead.”  This provoked a very urgent call from one of the supervisors at the call center.  I said it sounded like there was a problem somewhere in the chain from our web site into fulfillment and I’d get to the bottom of it, and in the meantime we agreed that the best policy was to tell the customer to keep the incorrectly shipped junk as our gift and we’d also send them the junk they requested.

Once we started our investigation, the problem was immediately obvious.  We had an email from the fulfillment folks with the code numbers for the various items, and those were the code numbers programmed into our application. However, when we checked the list of fulfillment codes against the back-end data dictionary, we realized that they’d transposed the numbers for the various items when they sent us the email.  Classic snafu and an honest mistake.  Once we figured out the problem, it took seconds to fix the codes and only a few minutes to run off a report listing all of the new members who were very shortly going to be receiving the wrong items.

So the question then became how to communicate the problem and the resolution to the rest of the business.  I settled for simplicity over blame:

“We have recently been made aware of a problem with the fulfillment process in the new rollout of member service XYZ, resulting in new members receiving the wrong promotional items.  This was due to fulfillment codes being incorrectly entered into the web application.  We have corrected the problem and have provided Customer Service and Fulfillment with the list of affected members so that they can ship the appropriate items immediately.”

You will note that I carefully didn’t specify whose “fault” it was that the incorrect codes were inserted into the application.  I’m sure the rest of the business assumed it was my team’s fault.  I’m sure of this because the Product Manager in charge of the campaign called me less than fifteen minutes after I sent out the email and literally screamed at me– I was holding the phone away from my ear– that he knew it wasn’t our fault (he’d seen all the email traffic during the investigation) and how could I let the rest of the company assume we were at fault?

And I told him what I’m going to tell you now: nobody else cared whose fault it was.  Fulfillment was grateful that I’d jumped on this particular hand grenade and saved them from the shrapnel.  My management was impressed that we’d resolved the problem less than two hours after the initial reports and had further produced a list of the affected members so that Customer Service could get out ahead of the problem rather than waiting for irate customers to call.  Total cost was minimal because we caught it early and addressed it promptly.

And that’s the bottom line: all that throwing blame around would have done was made people angry and lengthen our time to resolution.  Finding somebody to blame doesn’t make you feel justified or more fulfilled somehow, it just makes you tired and frustrated.  So always try to short-circuit the blame loop and move straight into making things better.

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3 Responses to “The Blame Game”

  1. So always try to short-circuit the blame loop and move straight into making things better.

    That works great – unless you’re in a snake-pit and everyone _else_ is playing the blame game. Then you’re the patsy and everyone else is able to dump all of their problems on your group .. and pretty soon your not able to get your job done.

    I’ve only been in one organization like that, and I got out as soon as I could manage it.

  2. This is great advice. It is very, very hard to get past a culture of blame, where IT has become the “whipping boy” for business failures. Add to that the tendency of most operations people to be skeptical, negative thinkers–trying to anticipate what could possibly go wrong so they can fix it in advance–and you end up with a frustrating mess. I’m sure there was also an undercurrent of cynacism at the whole idea of the “junk” promotion. But leadership is all about getting past those things…not just telling people what to do but helping lead them through the distractions and rathole conversations that waste precious time and sap morale.

  3. […] or software–and managers/business people. Today, I was reading Hal Pomeranz’s “The Blame Game” about how IT leaders need to get past finger-pointing and get working on resolving a […]

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