Mayden’s No Blame Culture

Michele Rees-Jones
Written by Michele Rees-Jones January 28, 2023

‘Blame’ is a loaded, negative word. But it’s a common reaction when something goes wrong. Some even look for people to blame. It shifts responsibility and reduces our discomfort when we ‘know’ who was at fault. But the thought of being blamed promotes risk aversion. At Mayden, we avoid blame, and for good reason.

Our no-blame culture was put in place before we adopted agile ways of working, and a flat structure of self-managing teams. It is now a part of our ethos. Our experience of ‘no blame’ in practice encourages all to be responsible for their work.

Ownership of mistakes only happens if people trust - and witness - ‘no blame’ being played out.
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How do we do it?

Have you ever been in an incident review when half the room claims responsibility for something that went wrong? We have! It’s weird, but oddly refreshing. As humans, we’re used to seeing people cover up mistakes, or deflecting blame. It’s bizarre when the opposite happens. But that happens at Mayden.

Our retrospectives are designed as safe spaces for reflection. They uncover the causes of problems that arose, and encourage personal awareness. If issues arise, it’s not unknown for several to highlight something they did, no matter how small. Addressing just one incident can reveal actions that would have prevented it... actions otherwise not discovered.

In one incident, an error was discovered that had been made two years earlier. We just accepted something had gone wrong, and worked to go forward rather than wasting time looking for the fall guy.

Ownership of mistakes only happens if people trust - and witness - ‘no blame’ being played out. They need the assurance they will not be blamed for unintended consequences.

“Our no blame stance encourages people to raise the alarm when something happens, even if they are at fault, and problems are dealt with quickly. It builds a trust culture. People aren’t afraid of being ‘the fall guy’.”
Erica (software developer at Mayden)

Over the years, we’ve seen how working without fear of censure increases innovation and creativity. It also frees people to play with ideas that might not otherwise see the light of day. They are safe knowing the team has their back if something goes wrong. More importantly, it has the opposite effect to the one some organizations would be concerned about - risk. We believe that freeing people from the fear of blame lowers risk to the organization. If people aren’t scared to be open about mistakes, the organization can address them and reduce overall risk profile. The alternative? Accumulating skeletons in the cupboard, raising risk across the organization, and not even being aware it’s happening.

“Our lack of hierarchy means no one feels the need to pass blame down the chain. All that matters is fixing the mistake and learning from it. Then we trust each other to make sure it isn’t repeated.”
Dave B (software developer at Mayden)

Does it work?

You could be forgiven for thinking that freedom to make mistakes means more mistakes. The key test of our no-blame culture regime is as follows: Do we make lots of mistakes? More importantly, do we make the same mistakes again? It’s impossible to know for sure, but we are satisfied that the level of self-inflicted problems is lower, and 20 years of experience shows that our error rate has reduced.

If the test is whether we make the same mistakes repeatedly, the answer is emphatically ‘no’. We expect our teams to learn from errors and apply the lessons learned.

This doesn’t mean everything at Mayden runs seamlessly. We are humans, not robots! We avoid equating ‘no blame’ with ‘no responsibility’. Our way of working means teams take responsibility for their work and are accountable for what they deliver. They accept there is no room for complacency or lack of accountability.

What did we learn?

Avoiding blame and shame isn’t theoretical for us. It’s a deliberate cornerstone of how we work. Perhaps what we have learned might help you to think about your response when something goes wrong.

Here is a summary:

  • We retro projects and review our work regularly - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • We talk it out in a safe space - often during retrospectives - and we encourage everyone to recognize the role they have played when things go well and also when not-so-well.
  • We capture lessons learned and adapt our practices to take account of them.
  • We get behind each other when mistakes occur and run towards the problem, not away from it.
  • We put robust practices in place to support decision-making in the first place.
  • We focus on solutions when a problem occurs and don’t go back over old ground.

According to Erica: "A no blame culture requires a conscientious attitude by all and a commitment to ensure the same mistakes aren’t repeated."

While there is a hope that developers use their collective expertise to deploy great software, and to quality-assure their work, people will still make mistakes, because we are humans.

No one should be singled out when things don’t quite go to plan.

Written by Michele Rees-Jones
Michele Rees-Jones
Working as a program lead at Mayden, a self-managing organization creating digital technology for health care.
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