Todd C. Williams, Founder & President, eCameron, Inc.
Listening to last year’s debate on the troubles with the Healthcare.gov website it struck me how the blame game destroys business. What at times was more finger pointing than substantive debate about the Obamacare website revolved around “who are we going to fire” rather than how do we make government projects successful and prevent reoccurring failures. And, just when I thought it was over, earlier this week I heard Bill O’Reilly, amidst a solid grilling of President Obama, ask “Why didn’t you fire Sebelius?”
The Reality on the Project
What do business people learn from this? Plenty. First we learn to stand back and look at the larger picture. Where O’Reilly’s questioning should have gone, to make him a hero, was to ask about the government’s overall track record with projects. For the whole time the spotlight was on Healthcare.gov, with the press and politicians impugning a major program for, as it turned out, a two-month delay, other programs were having much larger and more costly issues. Every week bought page-two news of the Air Force’s billion dollar boondoggle into ERP dubbed the Expeditionary Combat Support System, California’s 21st Century Project with the apt moniker MyCalPAYS, and the Air Traffic Control’s NextGen system. Mr. O’Reilly’s bigger argument—getting government out of big projects—would have been much better served, more substantive and challenging, and reached the hearts of more voters had he broadened the question.
Blame Takes Your Eye Off The Ball
Trying to affix blame, finding who to fire, and hauling companies into court is about punishment. Failures need solutions. We need to learn from the issue and chart a course to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Unless someone knew about the issue and did nothing to correct it, directed someone to create the failure, or knowingly did not have governance in place to address it, he or she is not the problem. In Healthcare.gov’s case, it is appears the prime contractor did not allow enough time for testing and needed another two months. Having worked on projects of this size, being two months late is not bad. Not having scheduled enough time for thorough testing of the site, however, is gross negligence. Even though I am not an attorney, my time as an expert witness tells me there is reasonable grounds for punitive action.
Blame Removes Culpability
Blame is the simplest form of saying “not me.” When you search for blame in others, you are trying to affix attention on what they did diverting everyone’s attention, including your own, from what could have been done differently. In politics, it is the infamous witch-hunt searching for someone else to look bad in order to gain recognition somewhere else. Bottom line, blame is a selfish, narcissistic action that attempts to remove one’s culpability.
The Proactive Approach
Obviously, the best solution is to address problems before they happen. Inevitably, though, the occasional issue sneaks past even the most cautious eyes and you are faced with a major problem. Leaders need to set the tone.
Ask your team how to fix the issue. Your first action should be to listen to your team. More often than not, they will understand the problem and have multiple ways to address it. Your job is coaching them in selecting the proper solution.
Assign an objective party to look for root causes. If your team is having difficulty finding the solution, they probably do not fully understand the problems or the options to solve it. Often this is because they are too close to the issue and they need a fresh set of eyes looking at it. Using an objective third party to assess the situation can provide amazing results. At times being removed from the situation is all you need to see the answer.
Apply the correct level of governance. Depending on the type of issue, some oversight or additional process can help avoid problems in the future. Use an abundance of caution and prudence when applying process. Solving every problem with process creates bureaucracies. If a problem has a low likelihood of reoccurring, think twice about applying process. If the people that committed the error did not have the skills to do the job, replace them with people who can do the job. Process cannot take the place of intelligence.
Provide clear direction. People want to please their leadership. Setting lofty stretch goals and not being clear on priorities sets people up for failure. They will attempt to achieve everything and fail at most of it. Make sure people know what the organization’s goals are, how their goals directly relate to that, and how they need to help other achieve their goals. It builds the team and the stretch goals come naturally.
Distribute decision-making authority. Centralized decision-making is cumbersome, slow, and error prone. Distributing authority requires mutual trust and ensuring the people throughout the organization have a complete understanding of the organization’s goals. The benefits are huge since it empowers your team and accelerates your organization’s progress.
In The End It Is About People
Blame destroys trust, without trust you lose good employees. Without good employees, you will not succeed. Ergo, blame begets failure. Whether you are a CEO or a news anchor, a leader’s job is to build a culture that rises above blame and functions on responsibility, accountability, and trust. To build this culture you need to surround yourself with people who hold these same core values. If you feel must fire someone, fire the person that violates these principles.