Monday, October 03, 2016

Etsy Engineers Share Their Failures in Company-Wide Memos

Many organizations exhibit of culture of blame and shame when it comes to failures.  In a case study that I co-wrote with Amy Edmondson years ago, a doctor described the "ABCs of medicine" - in the past, he said, health care practitioners and administrators tended to Accuse, Blame, and Criticize when it came to medical accidents and mistakes.  Yesterday, I read a fascinating article about one firm's attempt to transform its attitude toward failure.  Etsy has tried to create a culture that encourages people to acknowledge, discuss, and learn from failures.   Here is an excerpt from the  article posted on Quartz: 

In a conversation yesterday (Sept. 17) with Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson revealed that people at the company are encouraged to document their mistakes and how they happened, in public emails.  “It’s called a PSA and people will send out an email to the company or a list of people saying I made this mistake, here’s how I made that mistake, don’t you make this mistake,” Dickerson said. “So that’s proactive and I think really demonstrates that the culture is self perpetuating.”  He was referring to the company’s efforts at practicing a “just culture,” based on the idea that blamelessness makes people more accountable, and more willing to admit mistakes.As described by Etsy CTO John Allspaw in an Etsy blog post, engineers (and now others at the company) who mess up are given the opportunity to give a detailed account of what they did, the effects they had, their expectations and assumptions, and what they think happened. And, crucially, they can give that account without any fear of punishment or retribution, in what’s called “a blameless post-mortem.”

I love this technique!   Etsy has done something quite remarkable here.  They are not simply demonstrating tolerance for failure.  They are not simply avoiding the tendency to point fingers when failures occur.  Etsy has gone one step further with this practice.  They are encouraging serious self-reflection on the part of their people.   The employees do  more than admit a mistake in these PSA e-mails.  They describe what happened and they analyze why events did not transpire as they had hoped or expected.  The review and analysis provides the opportunity for improvement, not only for themselves, but for others throughout the organization who read these PSAs.   

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