Apportion Blame Correctly


This is a follow-on to my post about Managing Mistakes.  There is a particular kind of blame I’ve seen several times and which I feel is especially unwise.  The situation is this.  A person, we’ll call him Fred, is working with another team to get them to do something.  He needs to get a feature into their product.  This feature is important to your team.  Fred does all the right things but the other team drops the ball.  They don’t respond.  They slip their deadlines.  They don’t include the feature.  The trouble is, while Fred did all the right things, he could have done even more.  He could have called one more time.  He could have camped out in their offices.  He could have paid more close attention to the other team’s schedule.  In short, he could have made up for their failure through extra work on his part.  Usually, however, these extra steps are only obvious in hindsight which is, after all, 20/20.

The all-too-typical response of management is to blame Fred for the failure.  After all, he could have avoided the problem if he just did a little more work.  Management is frustrated and embarrassed that the feature didn’t get completed as planned.  Fred is in their team.  Fred is thus the easy target.  Fred does deserve some of the blame here.  It’s true that he could have done more.  But Fred wasn’t delinquent in his actions.  He followed the usual steps.  The other team had agreed to do the work.  If they had done their part, everything would have worked out.  Unless Fred’s manager is better than average, he’ll be receiving all of the punishment even though he’s only partly at fault. 

There is a term in the legal field for this sort of blame.  Joint and Several Liability is when two parties sharing disproportionate amounts of the blame are held equally liable for the full cost.  Wikipedia gives this example:  If Ann is struck by a car driven by Bob, who was served in Charlotte’s bar, then both Bob and Charlotte may be held jointly liable for Ann’s injuries. The jury determines Ann should be awarded $10 million and that Bob was 90% at fault and Charlotte 10% at fault.  Under joint and several liability, Ann may recover the full damages from either of the defendants. If Ann sued Charlotte alone, Charlotte would have to pay the full $10M despite only being at fault for $1M. 

This strikes most people as unfair.  Charlotte is only responsible for 10% of the damage and should thus pay only 10% of the penalty.  Applying an analogous standard in the workplace is equally unfair.  If Fred is only 10% responsible for the failure, he shouldn’t receive all of the penalty associated with it.  He shouldn’t be reprimanded as if it is solely his fault.  Unfortunately, Fred is the most proximate target and thus often receives all of the blame.

Instead, this is a good time to apply the Tom Watson Sr. school of management.  Don’t blame Fred for the whole problem.  Instead, use it as a learning experience to teach him what he could do better next time.  Doing so creates a grateful employee instead of a discouraged one.  Fred is more likely to stick his neck out again if it isn’t cut off the first time.  He’s also smart.  He won’t let the same mistake happen a second time.

Comments (3)

  1. Not knowing how MSFT handles "project management", I’ll say that this is an opportunity for real leadership.  The smart project management approach is for somebody up the sponsor’s management chain, with oversight for both Fred’s team and the other team, to bless the (assumed) change in scope.  When the producing team has it in their plan, it’s up to the producing team’s PM *and* Fred to make sure the feature is delivered on time, within budget, and at the proper quality level.  

    This situation offers both Fred and the other PM an opportunity to fail in their PM responsibilities and to make their resource managers and sponsor(s) look bad.  The goal of every PM should be to make the resource manager and project sponsor look good.

    Fred is responsible for his own project, and he has to look back as well as forward.  He has to look back and keep track of the status *and quality* of the deliverable he requires as well as consider his own project.  After all, if Fred requires the feature, it is part of his project.

    If the project sponsor takes responsibility for a late delivery, then Fred is off the hook.

    In my view, a failure caused by a vendor/supplier is still a failure.  It’s like riding a motorcycle, where you have to believe everybody else is trying to kill you: here, you have to believe every supplier deliverable will arrive late and defective…if it arrives at all.

    Fred needs to have a contingency plan in place; his boss and the project sponsor need to know Fred’s solution for a late/bad delivery.  Under no circumstances does Fred want to push a problem without a workable solution up to the next level.

    If the delivering team doesn’t have the feature scoped in, and possibly have the project rebaselined, it’s going to be tough on Fred.  In political terms, this is an "unfunded mandate"!

  2. SteveRowe says:

    @Reeve – Your point is well taken that we must be careful of our suppliers.  Your analogy of the motorcycle rider is apt.  However, isn’t what you suggest ultimately an impossible burden?  If Fred is responsible for the ultimate success of the product no matter what, doesn’t that mean Fred needs to be prepared to write the whole product himself?  After all, in the worst case, his dependency could fail him as could his contingency plan.  Obviously you don’t intend that Fred be declared a failure if he doesn’t fall back to doing all the work himself but without that, isn’t he always beholden to someone doing the job they signed up to do?  If there is some place where the blame shifts from Fred to the 3rd party and I posit that there is, where is that line?  Fred cannot be held responsible no matter what.  So, what are those "whats" that do matter?