Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's My Fault

This morning, I sat in the coffee shop helping a friend with a consulting project he'd recently picked up. The company he is working with is one that I worked with before. He asked me to take him through some of the company's business processes and some of the software that I had developed.

After reviewing the business processes, we moved to some of the current challenges the client was facing and some specific problems they were having with the software I had developed for them. I was surprised to hear about the problems, but my first response was to believe that I must have missed something or got something wrong in the software I'd developed.

We jumped right into the software and reviewed the specific problems that were occurring. We quickly isolated the software that was causing the problems, and much to my surprise, it wasn't the software I'd written. It turned out that, since I'd stopped working with the client, someone else had done additional work and had introduced what we in software call, "bugs".

As I talked with my friend, he mentioned that he'd already asked the other software developer whether or not he'd made any changes to the program that might have caused the problem. The the other programmer answered with a non-answer saying that it's often difficult to isolate spurious problems with software and blah, blah, blah... He'd left my friend with the impression that he hadn't made any changes and that the problems weren't due to anything that he had done.

The funny thing is that he was wrong on both counts. First, it was really easy to find where the problem was, and second, the problem was absolutely due to the work he'd done.

Solutions Start with Ownership
Over the years, I've been able to solve lots of software problems that evaded others. Often times, I was able to find answers in minutes to questions that had challenged others for days or weeks. As I sat talking about this with Iris tonight, it occurred to me that my primary enabler wasn't skill or experience, it was simply approaching everything from the perspective that the problem must have been the result of something I or we did; not something that was simply an anomaly or the fault of someone else or a mistake on the part of the user.

It turns out that assuming that the source of the problem or challenge lies within your own purview can be amazingly powerful. It can lead to solutions that can't be found if you assume the problem is not yours.

Who Ya Gonna Blame
If you've ever worked with IT people, you've probably experienced the antithesis of ownership, i.e., IT people tend to operate on the assumption that the problem must be elsewhere and can't possibly be attributable to anything they've done.

You've probably experienced this phenomenon in lots of other situations. Fact is, many of them are probably ones in which you believe the problem lies with someone else and has nothing to do with you. In particular, if you have challenges in your life that seem to go on and on without a solution, I'd bet that a key factor is your assumption that the problems have nothing to do with you. You might attribute them to your situation or your job or your friends or your spouse or your childhood or... Still, they're outside of you.

Based on my theory, I believe that you'd find answers and solutions quickly and easily if you were to take on the assumption that the problem is totally yours (even if the problems turn out to be the result of someone else).

Attribution vs. Blame
A key factor to making all this work is dropping judgments about fault. So often, we jump right from fault (attribution) to judgment (blame). The problem with judging fault, is that we tend to avoid being at fault. Who wants to be blamed for something? By avoiding being at fault, we avoid solving any problems where we are at fault.

Fast Path to Solutions
So, the fast path to solutions to long term problems is a two step process:
Step One: stop judging problems and being the source of a problem.
Step Two: face all new problems from the perspective that the fault is yours, and therefore, the solution is yours.

Try this one on for a bit. Pick a persistent challenge in your life and take on the perspective that the fault is all yours (without blame or judgment). I bet you'll find answers you've never seen before.


  1. Tef--I LOVE this post. Maybe one reason this principle works is that nested under the "it's-my-fault-and-that's-okay" belief is the implicit belief that if I did it, I can certainly undo it/solve it/do it again more effectively. That gives you the momentum of confidence and optimism, which I think grease the rails of creativity far better than the weight of breast-beating responsibility. (Or, better, it's responsibility in the sense that Deepak Chopra uses it in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: owning your "response ability," which has nothing to do with blame.) Great insight. I'm going to share this with my team at work. Thanks!

  2. Teflon: great post. Using your earlier math syntax, I guess we could say
    Fault = Cause + Judgement.
    So if we could just remove the optional Judgement term, I believe we could find the Cause a lot faster.

  3. Chris, Thanks for your response! I love the phrase "response ability". Taking responsibility is amazingly empowering. I'll have to check out this Chopra guy. Thanks!

  4. I love this blog too! I am surrounded with "not my fault" and lately my attitude has been "give me a break you moron and take some ownership". I'm sure you can guess how that has been working. Thank you for this much needed insight. Love, Kathy

  5. I cheer how Chris clarifies that it's not 'judging' that is the villian, and that focusing on judgement as causitive behind avoiding response-ability is not entirely accurate. My song is to encourage realization and embrace response-ability around the quality of the judgement/assessment, and what it does for oneself. To choose, and to develope the ability to suspend judgement and be as mentor, son-rise or otherwise, and be present, judging and choosing to do so as where one wants to be, for the moment....ahh, aint that blissful? bw


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