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The Blame Game Print
In any engineering organization, things go wrong.
Product is shipped which doesn't meet customer expectations. Defects, perhaps severe ones, are missed in testing and discovered in the field. Documentation and manuals contains mistakes.
The list goes on and on.

There are two possible responses to such a crisis.

Some project managers will ask: "What can we change to make sure this kind of problem doesn't reoccur?"

Other project managers will ask: "Who was responsible for this mistake?"
They will begin to play the Blame Game.

A Game With No Winners, Only Losers

The Blame Game is a fun game to play.
It allows a project manager to find some outlet for everyone's anger and frustration. It provides hours of entertaining conversation, and redirects uncomfortable responsibility in another direction.

The only real problem with the Blame Game is that it is impossible for anyone to ever win. Temporary victories are possible.
When the CEO asks for an explanation of a screw-up, it's comforting to point the finger at one of the engineers and say: "He did it!"

Unfortunately, that solves nothing. The mistake still has to be corrected, the customer is still unhappy, and now the engineer who made the mistake is unhappy too. The mistake is just as likely to happen all over again next time.

If the CEO has the brains of an oyster, the Blame Game won't work for long. Soon will come the realization: this project manager can't deliver the goods.

Who Makes Mistakes Anyway?

Some engineers make very few mistakes.
These are the engineers who do as little as possible. They decline to rock the boat. They certainly will never try to improve anything. They follow the herd, well to the rear.
Since they never initiate, they can never be blamed. These engineers look forward to their paycheck and don't spend much time worrying about the quality of the product.
After all, it's not their problem.

Other engineers like to make things better.
They are always looking to improve the product, and produce it more cheaply. These engineers are constantly making decisions. They are the ones on the cutting edge of progress. Nothing but the best is good enough for them.
These are the engineers who make the most mistakes.

They are also the engineers who are responsible for all the progress. In an organization that plays the Blame Game, these engineers are the biggest losers.

What Would Captain Kirk Do in a Situation Like This?

As an old trekkie I'm quite familiar with the adventures of Captain Kirk and his diverse crew. While there are plenty of things that he can be criticized for, like his ceaseless violations of the Federation Prime Directive, there was one thing that Kirk knew how to do well:
he knew how to accept responsibility.

In how many episodes did we hear Kirk explain that the captain is responsible for the actions of his crew?
When things went wrong on the Starship Enterprise, Kirk never turned to Spock and asked: "who screwed up this time?"
He instantly turned his full attention on resolving the current crises, and took full responsibility for any damage.
There's a good lesson there for project managers.

Who Is Really To Blame?

When a mistake is made by anyone on the team, it is far more accurate to blame the project manager.
After all, the project manager is supposed to understand that people are imperfect. He or she is supposed to devise processes and systems to catch mistakes.
If that's not the job of a project manager, what is?

Since it's the project manager's job to establish the work process, it's also his or her responsibility. If a defect works it's way through the process, then the process is broken and needs to be fixed. If instead of trying to fix it, the project manager decides to play the Blame Game, the process will remain broken. Look for more defects in the next release.

Engineers very quickly learn to cope with the Blame Game. After all, they are good at solving problems. There are two solutions to the Blame Game problem, from an engineer's point of view. Either stop trying to improve anything, or find another job. The second solution is usually the best one.

Here's a Dollar, Go Buy a Clue

Nothing destroys respect for a project manager faster than the Blame Game. It might only take one round of play to completely lose the respect of everyone on your team. Only a few more rounds are required to lose the respect of upper management as well.

Next time a defect is discovered in your product, instead of blaming the engineer responsible, go out and buy a book or two about the process of professional engineering. Spend some time working on test plans. Set up a work review process to catch future mistakes. Do something useful.

Most importantly, take responsibility. Apologize to the entire team for the process defect that caused the product defect. Pull a Captain Kirk.

You'll find that you not only can improve your product, but also gain some respect from your team. Not only will they be inspired to avoid this kind of mistake again, they will also be inspired to think about process improvements and taking risks.

Until the genetic scientists manage to create a perfect person who never makes mistakes, we will have to learn to cope with them. Stop playing games and get to work instead. When it comes to process improvement, here's always plenty to do!

2003 © Ed Hartnett

Ed Hartnett has managed software projects in Europe and the USA. He welcomes comments at
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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