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Toby Hazlewood

What's More Important - Solving The Problem Or Finding Someone to Blame?

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Toby Hazlewood
Toby Hazlewood
 2021-05-06

Is now the time for blaming and fault-finding?

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I have a natural tendency when things go wrong to want to know why and to apportion responsibility. Sometimes it’s helpful, at other times less so.

In my work and my personal life it seems to make sense to analyse problems, failures and disappointments so I can learn what went wrong and avoid the same happening in the future. When I’m trying to apportion blame for a minor household mishap amongst my family, that’s less useful.

Consider a recent example: I was putting away some groceries in a kitchen cupboard after a hard-fought, socially-distanced trip to the supermarket. As I reached into the cupboard I knocked a jar of pasta sauce that was tenuously balanced on the edge of the shelf. It fell, smashing on the tiles, sending shards of glass and blobs of tomato and garlic sauce in all directions.

My immediate instinct aside from cursing loudly was to question who had placed the jar at the edge of the highest shelf.

Who knows what I hoped to achieve through my inquiry other than to be able to blame someone else for my clumsiness? It certainly wouldn’t help to clear up the mess.

We crave certainty and reassurance

The instinct to figure out who or what is to blame for errors and mishaps is strong within me. As we exist within the chaos wrought by COVID-19 I’m starting to believe that many think in a similar way — that’s if the bluster on social media, on TV and the newspapers are to be believed. Comments are rife and questions frequent from those who want to pull apart the situation, looking rearward as they do so.

I get that we’re all struggling with the uncertainty right now. We all want to know how life will play out. We want to believe that we and those we love (and everyone else for that matter) will be fine.

Our governments and our leaders are doing their best to make that happen, with varying degrees of success. I doubt any of them feel they are handling things perfectly.

For all the positive steps of progress that are made each day — providing financial assistance to citizens and businesses one day, building temporary 4000-bed hospitals the next — nothing seems to appease the complaining masses.

Their focus is instead upon trying to figure out who’s to blame — to dissect each past decision and then hold others accountable for why their judgment may not have been perfect.

  • What decisions could have been taken quicker and who should have made them?
  • Why didn’t we prepare better for this?
  • Who is responsible?
  • What will be done to hold them to account?

I understand the desire for answers to these questions, but will they help change where we are right now? Will they even change anything in the future?

Learning from the past

The answer is, only if we’re willing to do something with what we find out to learn and prepare for the future.

Learn and Prepare = Good.

Blame and Vilify = Bad.

Based upon the past, I don’t know how high our hopes should be of learning and implementing the lessons.

Consider the TED talk given by Bill Gates from 2015 in which he warned of the dangers of exactly what we are facing today. Or the movie Contagion which based on recent past epidemics such as SARS, MERS and Ebola portrayed a rapidly spreading global pandemic — it seems remarkably prescient now, should you have the stomach to watch it.

We have a startling tendency as humans to live but not to learn.

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Getting to the bottom of things

Working in the IT industry, I’m familiar with the process of Root Cause Analysis (RCA). When things go wrong there’s merit in having a full ‘drains-up’ review to understand why, and to identify learning points that might prevent similar events in future. Tools like Lessons Learned Reviews, and Retrospectives are part of a Project Manager’s toolkit for continuous learning and improvement.

What’s important when using such methods is to conduct them at the right point in proceedings. There’s little to be gained in diverting the attention of technical specialists towards figuring out why a problem happened when they’re still in the middle of trying to resolve the issue and repair the damage. The time for analysis is when things are back on an even keel and there is an opportunity for reflection and to search for answers.

The balance is to ensure that resources are directed to where they might be best deployed given the severity of the situation. Right now, I’m certain that we’d all do well to be following every government guideline and every other sensible measure we can to minimise the spread of COVID-19 and support each other. Instead, there’s an alarming desire to point out all the past misdemeanours of our government, to dissect their every action and point out how they could have done better.

It’s easy to be an armchair critic. The truth is that none of us really knows any better how to respond right now.

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Think long-term and be strategic

I listened to a podcast this morning featuring an enlightening and interesting discussion between Peter Attia MD and Michael Osterholm, discussing the COVID-19 crisis. They used an analogy to describe our global response — that we are tackling the crisis in the way that we might play a game of Checkers rather than a game of Chess — reactively and focused on the next move rather than strategically, thinking a few moves ahead.

The analogy seemed apt. As much as any of us might want to believe we could plan many steps ahead, I don’t see that’s possible as yet. The vaccine rollout is progressing well, but who knows what might happen with the virus if it mutates.

We don’t yet know for certain that those who’ve had the virus and recovered, will be immune to catch it again.

Speculating upon each of these may feel useful to us and help to tame some of our mental discomforts. Realistically though, we know it won’t actually help, any more than trying to figure out what went wrong and attribute fault for what is happening.

There's a time for analysis, and a time for just getting on with it

Apportioning blame may help us to feel good temporarily, but any effects are artificial and short-lived. If I knew who had put that jar of pasta sauce so precariously on the shelf then I might have felt less embarrassed or responsible for it smashing. The mess was still there to clear up, regardless. The damage had already been done. It wouldn’t have changed the realities of the situation.

At some point in the future, there will come a time when we can and should review what has happened both individually as nations and globally as we look back on COVID-19. The findings of such analysis might help to ensure that such things don’t happen again in the future, or perhaps more appropriately will allow us to prepare better for such things WHEN they inevitably happen again.

What I’m certain of, is that the time for such analysis is definitely not right now.

I hope that when we reach that point, we focus on what we can learn and how we can implement that learning for future benefit rather than vindictively and pointlessly figuring out which individuals, institutions or nations to blame.