Retrospectives, blame, and the Prime Directive, part 2

Despite the following very sweet quote, please get ready to join me in hacking through the bullshit, and talking about how to pull off this “no blame” thing when somebody screws up…

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. — Rumi

If you haven’t read part 1, it can be found here. I recommend it. In it, I said part 2 would be about how “it?s possible to be (to be honest with fondness & without judgment), and about screwing up, dealing with anger & frustration, [and] how we improve if we’re already doing our best.” Here goes nothin’…

What I hear in “doing their best”

I’ve tried to describe some of the ways people have said they hear the RPD. Now I’d like to talk about what I hear in it (on a good day).

There is one principle that underlies all the connections I have with people, and it’s this:

Everyone I meet has the same human longings that I have, and all of their actions are attempts to reach for those treasures.

(If you’re familiar with the work of Rosenberg and NVC, you may have encountered these as “universal human needs.”)

Distinguishing between treasures (or needs) and the strategies we use to reach for them has turned out to be an invaluable skill for me. Practice in that means that when someone does something I am tempted to judge, I can look deeper, often with their help, and discover what they’re going for. And it always turns out to be something I care about too. Then I can say, hey, that strategy you picked? I’m not liking it, because of these other treasures I’m going for. How about we look for one that works for both of us?

So, I don’t mean they’re somehow operating at some rare (or impossible) peak, and more importantly, I am not saying that everything they did was geared toward getting my agenda taken care of. I only know how to act on my own agenda, and I prefer to see other people that way, too. So given all the things they care about, they did the best they could to get what they wanted. I can see them as a person like me, who has a life that includes love & fear, drive & exhaustion, clarity & confusion, just like me.

Let’s talk about a screwup.

I don’t mean a person who’s a screwup. I mean an action we see as a screwup. “Tuesday afternoon, Amala broke the build and then went home for the day.”

DOOD! That is not ok

If Amala left in an ambulance, would that be “ok”? So, it’s not quite true that you would never do such a thing, right? No matter what happened, Amala was doing the best she could to manage all of what it means to be Amala. This isn’t just important to warm fuzzies and empathy. It’s vital to being able to change things.

Being able to look at how things actually are is a very basic requirement for making intelligent changes. We observe and adapt. And if you’re in judgment, you can’t see what’s happening with Amala that she would do this thing. That she would “screw up”.

  • Maybe she hasn’t had a pair all week, despite saying repeatedly that she’s over her head and she can’t manage this.
  • Maybe her father is at home, living out his last few weeks on this earth.
  • Maybe she just made a rare mistake, and it’s almost certain to not happen again.
  • Or, and this is important:

    Maybe she didn’t consider anyone’s needs but her own. Maybe she was careless.

    Ok, here we get down to the nitty. Yes?

    The thing is that if you are meeting her with honesty, empathy, and fondness, the way Rogers recommends (see earlier post), this isn’t much different than any other reason. You can start on your root cause analysis with love & openness, and you’ll discover way more than if you “let her know that’s unacceptable” or “hold her accountable.”

    Yes, I did suggest you not “hold her accountable.”

    Please notice that I first said you are meeting her with honesty, empathy, and fondness. The first one is honesty. I am not suggesting we gloss over things. I am suggesting we talk about what we observe, and how we see it changing things.

    So, what instead? How about root cause analysis? We can’t know the reasons for sure, but we can do our best to figure out what’s going on. Here’s one possible outcome:

    1. Why did she not consider anyone’s needs but her own? (Because she doesn’t care anymore.)
    2. Why doesn’t she care anymore? (Maybe she’s been asking for support, and doesn’t think she’s getting any.)
    3. Why doesn’t she think she’s getting any? (Because she doesn’t see us trying really hard to provide support.)
    4. Why doesn’t she see what we offer as “support”? (Because she has coping issues stemming from an earlier violent personal relationship.)
    5. Why does she continue to have coping problems? (Because she keeps refusing to get help.)

    This is a rough one. And it’s rough for a reason. I do not want to make this about being “nice” or giving up your boundaries or standards. I want it to be about stopping getting in our own way by taking the easy, judgmental route, when the other way is more connecting, interesting, and way more productive.

    So what do we do with Amala now?

    The beautiful thing is that we have lots of options at this point. We can offer to help address the problem, if we think that’s a good idea. We can investigate further, if we think the relationship is worth it. We can also decide we aren’t wanting to collaborate with Amala any more. We can do that while holding her with honesty, empathy, and fondness.

    If we’re gonna respect people as people, and recognize all these relationships as voluntary, we can start with taking the threat out of firing. At any time, she can decide she doesn’t want to work with us, and we can decide we don’t want to work with her. But that isn’t something we have to use as an ax over someone’s head. We have all sorts of options when we’re looking at the real situation.

    I’m not going to promise a part three, but if I did, it would be about how to get past the shame people have. Even when we aren’t judging them, they’re judging themselves, and that gets in the way, too. Maybe I’ll take that one to MyAgileEducation.com.

5 thoughts on “Retrospectives, blame, and the Prime Directive, part 2

  1. a) “fondness” is just fucking excellent.
    b) you should mull on that part 3, even if it isn’t the next thing you write.
    c) dang. that’s pretty good stuff. I may re-read it later, and add more to your comments, but for now, just, dang. I will sit with it.

    oh, p.s. puh-lease keep these notions you have as at least connected to http://myagileeducation.com . — GeePawHill

  2. Angela: What you provide here is a challenge that requires us to change the entire world of work. I’d love for that to happen! But it’s also hard! Consider this scenario: (Names changed to protect the real people.)

    Drew is director of customer service.
    Mike is supervisor of the “second level” technical support.
    Mitch is a programmer who recently changed jobs.
    Note: Mike and Mitch have a friendship outside of work.

    Drew: Mike, every time I pass Mitch’s desk, he seems to be browsing the web. Is he really working out?

    (later)

    Mike: Mitch, I’ve compared your numbers to the others on the team. You’re closing less tickets than everyone else, by an astonishing amount. What’s going on?

    Mitch: Things at home are really bad; Just last week, my wife assaulted me and I called the police on her. Things are really rough.

    (Mike tears up the sheet with ticket numbers on it.)
    Mike: Just do what you have to do to keep yourself afloat. I understand.

    So, Mike has responded to Mitch with Honesty, Empathy and Fondness. But what does he do when Drew asks him what he did about Mitch?

    It seems to me that an approach based on fundamental decency can’t live for long in a business environment.

  3. Hi, Sean,

    I guess I neglected to answer this, back when you wrote it. Oops!

    Here’s what I’m noticing. This stands out to me:

    (Mike tears up the sheet with ticket numbers on it.)

    To me, that looks like an assumption that honesty / transparency can’t live alongside compassion.

    I don’t think that’s true.

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