Toolbox: Getting Blame Off the Table

Blame distracts from finding useful solutions that make the systems we operate within safer, and interferes with productive change by causing defensive behavior.  That’s very logical and business-like, if that reasoning appeals to you.  But if you’ve ever been hit with that stick, you know blame hurts, and for me, that’s a good enough reason to try a different way.

There’s three tip-offs I know of that blame is going on and that focusing on individual behavior may be short-circuiting  investigation of the systems generating the problem.  By listening for these clues, it’s possible to get back on track.

  • Hindsight bias.  When hindsight bias is part of our discussion,  knowledge of what occurred as a result of an action influences the understanding of what was known and understood at the time of the action.  There are some clues in our language that this is going on.  The phrases “would have”, “could have”, and “should have” often indicate judgements about the past from the standpoint of the present.
  • Use of the phrase “human error”.  It’s not that people don’t make mistakes.  But the conclusion that “human error” is the cause of the problem distracts from looking at the system that allowed the error to occur, and focuses on who to blame. Here’s a diagnostic question to get back out of this trap: “Would another reasonable person in the same situation have made the same mistake?”  If the answer is “yes”,  then that’s a clue that more investigation of the surrounding system is needed for safety.
  • Fundamental attribution error.   When we’re explaining our own actions, we often find external causes for our choices, yet believe that other people’s choices came from unalterable internal characteristics.  Imagine the case in which a step was skipped in a set of instructions.  If we did that ourselves, we might extend explanations such as “time pressure” or “confusing instructions”. Yet if another person does the same thing, particularly a stranger,  we may leap to explanations that represent their personal failings as the source of their actions,  such as “sloppiness”.   The presence of attribution bias makes it hard to respond generously and with respect to people who may be very unlike ourselves, and it’s also hardest one of these three to spot and  challenge. A question that might help detect this is, “Would I believe this explanation if the person being criticized were my best friend?”

It’s hard to avoid blame and even harder to recover from the damage it does to trust and cooperation.  There’s no shortcut to rooting it out of  difficult discussions, but with awareness of the factors above it gets easier to spot and turn around.

 

 

Adding to the liturgy of safety

These are things for which no limit is prescribed: writing unit tests;  running meetings with a clear agenda;  talking to stakeholders; acts of kindness; and the study of safety
These are the things which not only profit one in the immediate moment but build up a safety culture for the future:  refactoring one’s own code;  reviewing a peer’s code; establishing test systems;  conducting blame-free incident reviews;  documenting processes;   increasing the diversity of your teams;  resolving differing mental models;  and the study of safety engineering principles surpasses them all.

This riff on Mishnah Peah was inspired  by a new safety teaching program we’re beginning at work,  a stray comment about the “safety liturgy” and some demonstrations of the same by friends,   and also by  this reframing of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.

 

What can we do locally about the attacks on immigrants?

Attacks and threats on immigrants are here, and with Trump’s 10 point program seem set to increase exponentionally in the New Year.  What can we do locally in response?   Here’s one tiny thing, but if more people made this comment perhaps it would have weight.  To send a comment to Gov Baker, go to his contact page.

Dear Governor Baker,
In just the first few days after the election, Trump has declared his intention to pursue a vigorous and harsh policy on immigration.  The enforcement of this policy will cause harm and destruction to individuals and communities across the Commonwealth.

Even under the Obama administration, there were substantiated issues about recklessness and lack of due process within ICE.    The Trump administration will have no interest in reining that in or providing judicial restraint and appeals for people who may be wrongly and unfairly targeted.

Last spring, you announced a policy of cooperation between the state police and ICE.  Our state police  should be protecting and defending the people of the state.  No cooperation should be made with climate of xenophobia and recklessness encouraged by the new administration.

This would be an appropriate time to walk  that policy back and insist on due process taking place without assistance from the state apparatus of Massachusetts.    Please consider other measures as well to protect vulnerable immigrants and communities here from harsh and reckless policy changes at the Federal level.

Sincerely,
Rachel Silber

The Grammar of Process Definition

When it comes to grammar, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist, though I can be persuaded to tell you how I would have done it.   Your way is OK with me, though we might have to compromise if we intend to communicate with each other.

It turns out that the same range of approaches applies to process definition, and there too I fall more in the descriptivist camp.  Process documentation bears less relationship than it once did to what the people who execute the process actually do?   Time to rewrite the doc, believing that the people on the front line know what they are doing.

But, once we’ve garnered agreement that what we’re doing is what we intend to do , there will need to be some balance, some process governance to keep us aligned with those intentions.   Challenge accepted!

Pep Talk

No kidding, it’s all true.

1. This too shall pass.  Full of hurt/overwhelm/frustration as you are, right now,  no feeling has ever lasted forever.   Today is hard but there have been good days before and there will be good ones again.  Breathe.

2. You are awesome and you’re here for a reason.   You are doing good work, and we need you and we’re glad you’re here.  You make our world better by being here.

3. It really is that hard. You are not wrong to perceive that there’s more work to do than one person can do alone, more to learn than will fit in a lifetime,  and hard hard choices that have to be made.   No one knows all of it, no one is really on top of all of  it all the time.  Those elegant swans are paddling frantically below the surface, and what’s more, they’ll admit it.  Hang in there.

4. You aren’t alone.  Everyone hits the end of their rope some days. These feelings, they’re all part of being human, and so far, that’s all of us.   But there are sources of support in the world.  Thank you for letting me be one for you.

Resources for Convention Harassment Policies

I’m just about to moderate the Wiscon panel on Convention Harassment Policies, and there’s a few links I know I’ll be mentioning to the attendees.

So here’s the link to all of them at once.

Con Anti Harassment policies: http://www.cahp.girl-wonder.org/
The battle plan for creating your own and links to the con policy database for many examples

Back Up Project: http://backupproject.org/faq.html
The Back Up Project fills a different niche than a con harassment policy and is no substitute for having one, but it has had an effect on the conversation and should be taken into account

Ada Initiative: http://adainitiative.org/
In the technical community similar challenges and issues arise, lots of good resources here.

Geek Feminist Wiki: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Conference_anti-harassment/Policy_resources
Many stories and viewpoints available here. Includes both fannish and technical communities here.

Arisia Code of Conduct: http://www.arisia.org/Code-of-Conduct
This is the latest version of what we actually have done. As of this writing, May 2014, needs to be updated to reflect our recent updates to corporate policies.

Readercon Safety page: http://readercon.org/safety/index.htm
Readercon took a from-scratch look in 2012 and came up with another approach.

Wiscon Rules: http://wiscon.info/rules.php
The Wiscon policies, latest version.

Nametags

Nametags matter.

I made a point of having nametags for everyone at all of last years convention meetings.   It seems like a little thing, but it sends an important message.  That message is, Even if you don’t already know everyone here, you are still welcome here. We want to know who you are.   All by themselves, nametags won’t solve the problem when our organization is perceived as being insular and unwelcoming to new people, but even small symbolic things count.

Nametags also remind the people who are already on board that new people are joining and not everyone knows who’s who.  When we put on a badge that says “Hello, my name is …” there’s an implicit promise to be approachable.  It’s a good reminder that being a welcoming and inclusive organization is ongoing, not just something we can check off.

Communications Plans

I’m working on writing up a framework for a communications plan for the next convention. We’ve never made an organized list of all the things that need to get told to people and when they have to get said. Probably that’s because we’ve bought into a mindset that it’s a trivial step along the way.

Here’s the takeaway: telling people things is real work. It takes time and planning and attention to detail.  The bigger the organization gets, the more work it takes to just tell people things.

Yes, I suppose there is a lot more of substance to say here, but one of the things we have to do is convince people that telling people things is real work. Otherwise they’ll look at this request for a plan and go, oh we’ll just do it when we get to it.  Because that’s worked so well for us in the past.

 

dealing with problems on the spot

I figured out just the other day that there are at least two different kinds of “hey I need help!” issues that could come up to a staff member at con.   One is a convention safety issue — someone is causing me grief or there’s a situation that’s unsafe.  The other is  what’s known as a service recovery event,  otherwise known as “feedback”.

Usually the “feedback” is some form of “hey you guys, it’s BROKEN here”.  The pattern for dealing with that is:

* apologize

* don’t try to justify why it’s broken or insist it really isn’t broken

* provide the customer with a remedy, with as much flexibility as you can

Good service recoveries can generate more good will than if everything had gone smoothly in the first place.

But if you’re dealing with a safety issue, it’s different.  First of all the first step is not “apologize”. It may be to enforce a rule or to get help or even give sympathy.   So the very first step is to filter the significance of the upset person in front of you: is this a safety issue or a  customer service problem?  Very different paths to follow depending on what you choose.

 

 

What’s the name of that thing?

Today we were discussing solving attendee problems at the con, and someone very helpfully told me what that process is called — Service Recovery. Service Recovery is a bit of magic, if done well it can turn a raving furious customer into your biggest supporter. You need a sincere apology and the flexibility to actually fix problems.

Now there’s another thing that I don’t know what to call it. There’s an email discussion going on, wherein one person is describing the official, documented process and the other person is commenting on the way that process is actually experienced by the people involved. Needless to say, they are somewhat talking past each other, and, I’m sure, each convinced that the other is a buffoon. There must be a word for that second, unofficial process. I just don’t know what it is.

I don’t feel too bad that our organization has both the documented process and the interpretive dance version. After all, we just got a tax cut passed by Congress through a sequence of events that bears very little resemblance to the neat diagram of How a Bill Becomes A Law from 7th grade civics. Put people and politics in a system, and everything goes to pieces….