Essentially, a contributing factor to innovation within an organisation relies on whether employees feel they have the freedom to explore new ways of doing things — to «think outside the box». This requires a certain level of confidence. By nature, innovation is not shy, and so employees mustn’t be either. This blog post explores why employees may or may not wish to work within a «no blame culture», and the benefits they may boast by doing so.
A no blame culture approach can be present in all kinds of teams, from marketing to operations. In the technology domain, no blame culture is critically important in DevOps environments. DevOps creates unity between development teams who implement new features and changes, and operations teams who support applications and their infrastructure. Although they are two different roles it’s important that they work interdependently toward shared goals to ensure that new functionalities are delivered and that they are stable in production. A key part of the DevOps way of working which has been adopted by Godel, amongst other companies, is being able to cope well when things don’t go to plan — addressing and learning from the problem, rather than blaming team members.
By working in this way, teams aren’t afraid to push boundaries in an effort to find new, innovative methods to get a job done, but they are praised for their efforts, even if the results are not ideal. Consequently, employees feel they are part of a safe environment, and so aren’t afraid to try to apply ingenious methods to their day-to-day tasks, which could otherwise become mundane given that they perform them in the same way most days. This mentality is shared across the board — it’s not just for managers alone to innovate. Instead creative thinking is shared in the company horizontally, and new ideas can be voiced by more people and supported at a faster pace by a motivated team. On the contrary, working in a culture where managers «point the finger» when things go wrong is likely to mean that employees become afraid to address the barriers which stand in front of them and the tasks in question.
Additionally, recognition for trying a different angle gives employees the courage to continue trying again, building on the knowledge gained from their previous experience to further cultivate new practices. Despite this freedom, it’s important that, when new ideas don’t go as planned, employees understand why this has happened. In order to achieve this, companies often carry out «post-mortems» on their product features; uncovering the reasons why they «died» and didn’t perform as predicted. It’s also important that the issues are communicated to the end user, demonstrating complete transparency. As a result, this encourages a strong relationship as they respect that you communicate both the good and bad. Where this is not the case, and a lack of honesty is demonstrated after an issue occurs, end users may turn to a competitor in the market.
Speaking on the matter, Alexander Nozdryn-Platnitski, Snr Software Engineer at Godel Technologies, says «I believe that the freedom we’re given at Godel is the cause of several things. Firstly, it’s my ability to work in an innovative way which allows me to make mistakes… but this isn’t a bad thing. My mistakes enable me to learn, and so help me to find new and improved development methods. That being said, I truly believe the viability of a no blame culture is all about experience; the more mistakes you make, the more you learn, and the easier it is for you to be innovative. Everybody starts somewhere, and it’s important that developers aren’t afraid to take that first leap of faith. It helps that, at Godel, our managers are completely supportive, they support their teams, understand their goals, and help us reach these goals.»
Because of this, each employee feels «safe» at Godel and feels confident to try new approaches, which, alongside the right talent, enables a constant flow of fresh ideas. This doesn’t always mean that new ideas will be cultivated right away, but when the time is right, which reflects Godel’s core values.
So, whilst it’s clear that companies can gain from a no blame culture, it doesn’t mean it is for everyone, — but why? Firstly, not everybody likes to challenge the «status quo». For many, this can be seen as stressful, especially if they like routine and are creatures of habit. To master one technique, only to find another, can be seen as pointless and a waste of time. If people aren’t comfortable to work in an environment which encourages continuous improvement, then they shouldn’t. Understandably, it could be stressful, and so employees aren’t likely to perform best when they feel under pressure.
That being said, there are companies that wish they operated in a no blame environment, but they haven’t yet reached this level of freedom. So, what must they do to reach this point?
There are two sides to this transition — the cultural and technical shift. From a cultural perspective it’s vital to understand that a company is nothing without its people, and by giving these people the scope to explore, they improve their skills, which adds value to the business in turn. It is advisable that risk management processes are put in place to help manoeuvre issues when they arise — this helps assure teams that if things go wrong there is a clear path to a solution.
In a technical environment, people like to see changes as quickly as possible, and a natural effect of this is that mistakes will happen. An agile approach is part of the recipe to reacting to complications as soon they are seen, and the no blame culture allows the team to resolve and learn from the issue objectively. This way, future decisions are informed from past lessons and have a smaller chance of failure. Improving resilience against failure is an element that helps teams focus on delivering new features with less concern for downtime. Effective implementation of automation, DevOps and robust testing will create a development environment that can support «failing fast» in the pursuit of innovation.