In my professional experience, I had the chance to work for a while as an escalation project manager involved in several projects that suffered from substantial imbalances. I was usually called in, at very short notice and had to get a clear picture of the project and the current situation in just a handful of days. It often disturbed my work when my time was wasted in initial meetings with mutual finger pointing. The topic of “blame” never got me any further, because it is more likely to cause losses for the projects – and yes, I am talking about blame eats real money.
The most remarkable instance was a project in which three providers had to implement a long overdue migration for a customer. One of the providers was our company. Several milestones had been missed, we had to pay contractual penalties and the go-live date seemed hopeless because almost nothing was done.
The project was managed by an external project manager who explained to me in great detail that the three providers were not working together and told me many stories. After the third or fourth anecdote, I asked him what he had done to remedy the situation, but he did not give me a clear explanation. Which was not a good omen.
Together with the representatives of my own team and the other two providers, there were massive finger-pointing disputes. Within the team as well as outside of it. These discussions went on and on. I hardly managed to find a way to discuss the most important next steps with the parties involved or even to draw up a battle plan for the next few weeks. Again and again it was a matter of blame. At some point the idea crossed my mind, which I actually said out loud, “OK, I’ll make myself available as a scapegoat, I’ll take all the blame!”.
The next 4-5 accusations – which of course came up – I accepted and said, “Stop, I’m the one to blame, that’s what we agreed” and such discussions came to an end. I did the same with colleagues from the other providers who were typically our competitors in other bids. This enabled a bit more focus to the large project group. So we had enough material and discussed the most important issues in a smaller group on the next day.
Apparently, a crucial obstacle had not been addressed in the project, the customer’s contribution was lacking everywhere. That’s why even the teams that could have worked independently were stuck. It also seemed strange to me that contractual penalties were paid even though there were almost no contact persons named on the client side.
The project manager told me that he was not responsible for this, he explained to me in many words why this was not covered in his mandate. I was already fed up at this point, so I met with the other two providers and went to the client. With the help of sales we had high ranking contacts who were shocked and provided (slightly) better support as well as stopping the penalty claims immediately. This was actually due to a bit of luck, a moment of surprise and, above all, the well-connected sales department.
The next day, the project manager entered the office with a bunch of papers – which turned out to be his contract – and wanted to explain to me in writing that he was not responsible. I was sure he was in for a bad surprise already. I asked him if he really wanted to explain, that he was not responsible for a monthly saving of a lower 5-digit amount on behalf of his clients.
All three of us providers were able to reasonably save the project together. Somehow a good esprit de corps evolved quickly in the project. We dismissed the project manager in unison from his contracts and – each in his own organisation – replaced some team members to the best of our ability or filled them in with freelancers. After that, we worked jointly, took care of each other’s tasks, provided test systems and managed to get the project done almost on time. The necessary approvals were obtained just in time, mostly on beta releases, version 1.0 could only do the most essential tasks and the final version was 6 weeks late.
An initially very upset head of department from the customer eventually helped to ensure that the 6-week delay was probably only noticed by a few end customers. Everyone was proud of the work and competitors thought it was sad to wave valuable colleagues good bye at the end of the project.
However, I wanted to write about blame. The blame game didn’t help us at all. And when I think about it, the people who fighted on blame the loudest were those whom we had to exchange. Not being guilty and blaming others often translates in not willing to take responsibility.
I have used this line “OK, I’ll take all the blame!” many more times. Because I never experienced in any of these problematic projects that there was really that one person or department to be blamed. The closest thing to “blame” I have experienced is incompetence. When companies send people into projects who don’t have the necessary professional competence, that make massive mistakes, then again we’re not talking about blame, but a lack of professionalism.
Blame almost always leads to unaccountability, which is often combined with financial harm. There is actually a type of employees who don’t care that their company is losing money. The problem is not their fault, after all, but someone else’s. End of story for the mindset of such persons.
Projects and organisations that cultivate blame as part of their culture are in fact zero maturity in most maturity models. There is a good reason for this, not only because it sucks to work there, but also because blaming is like an anaesthetic for progress. Striving for efficiency or even innovation is not wanted in those organisations because exploration always brings risk, errors and failure.
You do indeed find this kind of culture in projects more often than you think. Usually as a kind of senseless scapegoat principle, the blamed parties don’t actually have to fear any serious consequences, in the next project they sit on the other side of the table and then they nominate the scapegoat.
If people need a scapegoat, that is perfectly understandable, but it is simply a lack of culture.
What did I take away from that time?
- Blame is neither productive nor does resolve problems.
- A scapegoat culture encourages non-responsible behaviour, which always costs money. Lack of efficiency is also expensive.
- Unfair blaming is a gigantic demotivator for project workers
- A history of ignoring or killing the messengers is a huge burden for projects. Problems never disappear, but messengers get quiet. Late phase problems cost a lot of money. Try to get their trust back.
- In complex projects or in projects that progress empirically, mistakes are inevitable and must be used as a driving force. Blame has no part in this.
- If you succeed in looking at the big picture, many a “not responsible” party will turn into a quite capable project worker.
- Winning trust can even motivate an employee who has been beaten and kicked by his management as a scapegoat. I succeeded once, this good man was 15 months short of retirement, which made me very happy.