Over my career, I've seen organizations of all sizes behave well and behave badly. I've watched with interest as organizations institutionalize either type of behavior. There are many books out there about this, why it happens, how some companies have reorganized or rethought to get rid of bad behavior.
With so many books, I have avoided writing a blog post about it. However, I'm starting to see a central theme in these organizations that I want to at least give type to. This is the concept of the Blameable Object.
In attempts to gain certainty in operations, production, sales or whatever, people seem to delight in creating blameable objects. They come with a variety of names: Benchmarks, Performance Measures, Standard Plans, Sales Goals, Production Goals, and so on. But in the end, these structures are used to punish.
In a recent meeting, one of my colleagues related that at his previous company the end of every month was crazy-busy because everyone had to meet shipping goals. "Anything that wasn't nailed down, we'd ship at the end of the month regardless of whether it was complete or useful."
The shipping goal, which is a valid benchmark for judging the success of a unit that ships things, ceased to be a valid benchmark the moment it crossed over into being a blameable object.
When it made that leap, the once-benchmark then became nothing more than a target to game. And gaming that target was detrimental to the organization.
As an organization cultivates more and more blameable objects, internal competition (I don't want to get blamed) trumps external competition. When it becomes more important to beat people in your own company, then your focus shifts not to your clients, not to your products, not to your customer service, but to how you can stick it to the other division.
You can bet that the shipping goal in my colleague's old company was mirrored throughout the organization in production, sales, and other goals which served as blameable objects.
As organizations become mired down by their blameable objects, they become less and less agile. Processes to support the blameable objects become more and more onerous. The goals invariably come to loggerheads with each other.
Product Development may have a goal to release five new products in a year. Marketing's goal may be raw numbers. New products cost more to market, so marketing sticks to what they know and sell only the old stuff. For a couple of years, everyone's numbers look good -- but new products are developed but never actually sold to anyone because the metrics are driving the organization.
Finally, some C level person looks down and says "Wow, we have developed 15 new products in the last three years and only one has done well! Why?!" And marketing has to say "Because you wanted a certain growth in sales and we couldn't spare the resources to learn the new products."
The funny thing is ... marketing is probably filled with people that desperately wanted to sell the new products. But if they did, the sales numbers may go down and they'd get beaten over the head with a blameable object.
Blameable objects divide an organization, they provide granular measures of success where it is not warranted. This creates divisions in responsibility, intent, and (again) measures of success. When this starts to appear, the blameable object itself is rarely actually blamed - its the people that are blamed.
As this becomes common, organizations start calling internally for quotes, budgets, plans and "guarantees of success" that no one takes any actual stock in, but merely use as a blameable object in the future. Given that the actual plans are loose estimates made before anyone really knows true costs or effort, no one believes they will work. But the blameable objects demand them. "Look, with this magic plan, I have guaranteed that we shall run afoul of no blameable object!"
Blameable objects are perhaps the major stumbling block to agile practices. These objects directly fear the agile practices. They see agile as an invasion of privacy, a theft of control, an imprisonment of their autonomy, and mob rule. In the end, blameable objects and the creation thereof can be seen as a primary warning sign that power in an organization is being factionalized and hoarded. Therefore, the blameable object is the essence of anti-agile.
I would love to hear some anecdotes of the impacts of blameable objects in organizations that you all might have. Come on, I know you have to have a few.
Cartoon from toothpastefordinner.com