The blame reframe by barry mapp

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This paper tells why we need to reframe the concept of blame if we are ever going to improve anything. Barry suggests blame is a concept with flawed thinking that is re-inforced through the application of Newtonian Science's idea of cause and effect. Cause and effect can only be proven in a closed system. (The paper is an outline of a workshop session run by Barry Mapp at the Alliance of Deming Consultants - now the Deming Alliance - in 2010)

Barry says "My hope was that in this session we could get to an ‘ah-ha’ point where we could see how ‘blame’
and ‘cause’ are so tightly linked in our psyche and our language, that the best approach in order to
alter mindsets and get people to look at systems rather than individuals may be to start to using
different language".

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The blame reframe by barry mapp

  1. 1. THE BLAME REFRAME - How to move towards Blame-Free Thinking Barry MappSummary of a workshop presented at the Alliance of Deming Consultants at Warwick University on September 13th 2010.
  2. 2. The Blame Reframe - How to move towards Blame-Free ThinkingSummary of a workshop presented at the Alliance of Deming Consultants at WarwickUniversity on September 13th 2010.This workshop session was intended to get participants thinking more deeply about the “BlameGame” and to look at how our ‘language’ patterns may still be contributing to this way of thinking.In groups, we started by looking at the possible ‘origins’ of blame and then looked at whether theconcept of blame helped or hinder ‘improvement’. Working in groups, feedback suggested thatthere were some potential benefits of ‘blame’ but most of these were to do with things that did notspecifically relate to improvement of the system (more that ‘blame’ shifted focus and reduced stressfor those who could deny involvement). However feedback in the session also identified that theblame game hinders improvement in that it blocks proper investigation, it encourages short-termthinking, leads to misrepresentation of data, and to risk-avoidance. As the Harvard Project (below)intimated when blame is the game, understanding is the casualty.DiscussionDeming highlighted the importance of the System as the source for things that ‘go wrong’ andthrough his deep understanding of variation showed that the most likely ‘causes’ of problemsderived from the systems that individuals had created rather than from individuals themselves. Theimplication being that if we have the need to find ‘blame’ then we should look at the system ratherthan the people.My hope was that in this session we could get to an ‘ah-ha’ point where we could see how ‘blame’and ‘cause’ are so tightly linked in our psyche and our language, that the best approach in order toalter mindsets and get people to look at systems rather than individuals may be to start to usingdifferent language.From assigning blame to mapping the contribution systemOne of the approaches that I like very much as an alternative to playing the blame game, is theconcept of the ‘contribution system’ developed by the team at the Harvard Negotiation Project. Thisproject (on-going) is aimed at finding processes to resolve difficult conversations. Difficultconversations represent a ‘complex system’ so some of the learning from difficult conversations isapplicable to any complex system like manufacturing or service. It is also very difficult to find yourown contribution to ‘problems’ and the only way sometimes to get an insight is to look at thesituation from all perspectives. In the case of conversations this means asking the other parties toelucidate your contribution to the situation. It often requires several contributions to occursimultaneously or close together for a particular outcome to occur. Each contribution on its ownmay not have resulted in the problem occurring. Real world scenarios are more like the gameBuckaroo (where you need lots of contributions to see any effect – when the horse ‘bucks’) andcontribution is thus a better word than ‘cause’. If a single solitary event on its own results in aspecific outcome then we can call this the sole contributor (meaning that the ‘contribution’ modelcan replace and subsume the ‘blame’ model)Here is a summary from the Harvard Research Project comparing blame (looking for thecause) and contribution:Blame is about judging (and it looks backward) and contribution is about understanding (and looksforward) and:The Cost of the Blame Frame: • when blame is the goal, understanding is the casualty • focussing on blame hinders prevention in the future (ie hinders solutions) • blame often leaves a bad system undiscovered
  3. 3. The Benefits of the Contribution Frame: • contribution is easier to raise • contribution encourages learning and improvementWe have already reframed “control” so why not “cause”?Some iconoclasts conversant with Deming Thinking have recognised that the terminology andconcepts we learnt in the past (at work, school and home) are part of the problem and thereforehavesought to influence changes in approach through reframing the language we use to speak aboutideas and assumptions derived from pre-Newtonian and Newtonian thinking (when we sought tomake the world around us conform to a mechanical universe of great predictability and certainty ).Donald Wheeler for example has perceptively called the maths we learn at school as ‘math world’maths (because it factors out variation and makes the ‘shades of grey’ world look ‘black & white’)and he reframes the mathematical thinking that incorporates (rather than excludes) variation as a‘real world’ maths. ‘Control’ was another word that many in the Deming Community have sought to reframe (becausethe idea of ‘control’ is flawed in complex systems)So ‘control charts’ have become ‘Process Behaviour Charts’ a term that more accurately describewhat the charts do and Glasser has reframed his ‘Control Theory’ as ‘Choice Theory’ (because it isabout choice rather than control)The purpose of this workshop was to reflect seriously on the word ‘cause’ and to debate whether areframe of this word would give a better and deeper understanding of what actually happens in the“real world”. The flapping of butterfly wings in one part of the world can be the final input into acomplex system that results in a hurricane in another part of the world but it would be wrong to saythe butterfly ‘caused’ the hurricane!My belief is that ‘cause’ is far too ‘black and white’ a concept for an understanding of events thatoccur in a complex ‘real world’. The real world is described more realistically in terms ofprobabilities rather than certainties and so we need to use language that is more probabilistic thancertain. ‘Cause’ is too certain a term for what we now know, based on our understanding of post-Newtonian science.So my suggestion is that if we are to help shift how the world thinks about blame, we need tobe prepared ourselves to shift how we speak about ‘cause’. My premise is that we shouldconsider adopting the ‘contribution system’ concept outlined in this paper such that we might thentalk about ‘special contributors and common contributors’ (to the variation seen in a process orsystem) rather than special and common causesOne of the immediate advantages of the ‘contribution’ language is that it is actually easier to acceptour own part in a ‘problem’. Rather than simply ‘blaming’ the other partners for a breakdown in arelationship we can talk openly about the recognition of own contribution to the problems (it is inrecognising our own contribution that we learn how to avoid finding ourselves in the same situationagain). In the (true) story about the new employee who left the hose pipe running at the end of theirshift after washing down a brand new boat, to find that in the morning the boat had sunk – thecontribution system gets all parties to consider after the event all the contributing factors theknowledge of which can lead to improvement e.g. such contributions could be human error,possible deficiencies in induction/training but most of all to look also about how the ‘system’ inoperation may have contributed (in this case the best solution was to put a timer on the hosepipe not
  4. 4. to focus on human frailty). We need to move from obsession with seeking to assign blame to adesire to map out the contribution system as a mechanism for informing the real possibility offacilitating improvement.Let’s take a look at some scenarios where our instinct to look for the ‘cause’ is not helpful asfar as improvement is concernedScenario 1Three boys arguing in the playground one boy holding his jawOur usual ‘who is to blame’ approach is to ask something like “who started this?” (impossible to geta straight answer) to “who hit Jimmy”. If a culprit is found (cause) invariably they get somepunishment and the others walk free. If this is seen as an opportunity for improvement ineverybody’s behaviour and we actively seek the contributions, we may find out through a nonjudgmental questioning approach that Fred (egged on by Tony) hit Jimmy who had called Fred a‘****’ . We now have an opportunity to impart some relevant emotional intelligence skills for allthree of the boys whereas blaming the last boy in the sequence probably means that no-one learnsanything (except the Fred perhaps learns that the world is not ‘fair’)Scenario 2A wife goes off with another man and then seeks a divorce. If the husband simply blames the wifefor her adultery without considering how he might have contributed to the breakdown of themarriage then if he remarries he may find himself in a similar situation in his new relationshipbecause he had not looked at how he might be contributing to failed relationships.Scenario 3A man is mugged and his laptop bag is snatched and stolen. The contribution system gets the man toconsider his contribution to what happened. Clearly he was not to ‘blame’ but did he contribute insome way to this particular event happening to him and could he have done anything differently soas to avoid this happening again?SummaryThe ‘contribution’ model can replace and subsume the ‘blame’ modelAre there other models that encourage us to move away from the concept of ‘blame’? (1) In the book ‘How the way we talk can change the way we work’, (ISBN 0-7879-6378-X) Keegan and Lahey take us through their seven languages for transformation and the first step in their transformation process is to move from the language of complaint to the language of commitment. And their second step is to move from the language of Blame to the language of Personal Responsibility. In a similar vane to the ‘contributions’ model taking personal responsibility directs our attention to places where we have maximum influence. (2) In some of the ‘new psychologies’ like NLP for example we can see the concept of blame described as a ‘cognitive distortion’ e.g. based on the work of Aaron Beck and others, in ‘Feeling Good - The New Mood Therapy’, David Burns outlines 10 common mistakes in thinking and one of these mistakes is the concept of personalisation and blameBlame hurts morale, it misdirects energy, it feeds existing biases and it inhibits creativity. I havewritten several blog articles about how the ‘Old Psychologies’ are embedded in the “ComplianceCompany” ethos whereas the “New Psychologies” are very congruent with the ethos of “CreationCompanies (see http://barrymapp.com/2009/07/creation-companies-apply-the-principles-of-new-psychology-to-business/). Creation Companies are ones that create a ‘blame-free’ culture.
  5. 5. Conclusions from the sessionThere was general agreement that playing the ‘blame game’ had a negative effect on the opportunityfor process improvement. However the idea that we should change our own language patterns totalk about ‘contribution’ rather than ‘cause’ was controversial for many consultants. This wouldmean for example replacing the terms common and special ‘causes’ with the terms common andspecial ‘contributions’.I welcome feedback on this article Barry MappFurther ReadingHarvard Negotiation Project “Difficult Conversations” Stone, Patton and Heen ISBN 0-14-027782-X

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