In his book Creativity Inc, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull recalls the time during the production of Toy Story 2 when the entire film’s files were accidently wiped from their drives. To make matters worse, the backup systems also failed. It was a mistake that could have cost Pixar its future. Only a moment of pure luck saved the movie and the business from ruin; the supervising technical director, working from home after the birth of her second child, had a recent copy backed up on her home computer.
There were many lessons Ed and his team took from this episode, not least to improve the security of their backup and make it much harder to enter a command that could wipe an entire drive. Yet strikingly, at no point during their investigation did they seek to ask or understand who made the initial error that caused such a catastrophic turn of events.
Catmull explains that it never occurred to even ask the question of “who?” – such was their certainty that it was entirely accidental and it would offer no benefit to find out. It speaks volumes about the levels of trust and alignment within that team that blame should be an entirely redundant emotion. Everyone wanted the movie to succeed; the systems let the team down, not an individual.
Whilst blame is an entirely human (and hard to control) reaction, it makes us wonder what place it has within business. In the workplace we appoint blame usually for two reasons a) to mete out punishment or b) to distance ourselves from the issue. Either way, blame rarely proves helpful: working within a team where blame is commonplace is damaging to employee engagement and fosters a fear of failure.
Today, more and more businesses are seeking to embrace a “fail fast” culture in an effort to adapt, learn and grow more effectively. Collaboration and a “fail fast” mindset depend greatly on a blame-free culture. People must be allowed to make mistakes in the pursuit of shared business goals.
Alignment of vision and purpose can be hugely powerful. You see it in abundance in sport; whether it’s the missed penalty or the last-minute mistake, true teams are quick to share the burden of failure, are steadfast in support and ready to move on quickly and positively.
And whilst a truly blame-free business is a utopian vision for many large organisations, it’s possible to mitigate it through having better alignment of the goals. In summary: