On dodging buses

The following is inspired by a number of true stories, though it is fiction:

Susan, manager of a development team, receives an email (sent to several dozen people) that the sanity test cycle is being held up because of a problem … a problem she thought had been fixed.  She sends a hurried “reply to all” saying as such, asking whether the fix ever made it in.  Igor knows his teammate Rosalina was ironing out some last-minute issues with the fix late last night, but doesn’t know what happened.  Igor sends a reply-to-all saying “Rosalina was supposed to check in that fix,” prompting Susan to ask, in front of the same 50 people, whether the fix ever made it in, in some rather unhappy language.  Rosalina replies a few moments later that the fix was held up, but that a manual workaround has been applied and testing can continue.

On the surface this looks mundane, but if you look a bit deeper it exposes some behaviors which can have a lasting negative effect on the team.  It’s bad enough when your teammate throws you under a bus to get ahead … but Igor has thrown Rosalina under a bus and gained nothing out of it.  This is a blame-avoidance culture gone too far.  Igor is so scared of getting in trouble that his first reaction isn’t to fix the problem, it’s to dodge the incoming blame missiles.

I can’t blame Igor for what he’s done.  He’s been trained, either by Susan or by other managers, to do this.  But imagine everything else about the story is the same, except Igor takes the time to walk over to Rosalina’s desk, they converse for a moment, and then Rosalina responds to the email, “I was working with Igor on that problem late last night.  I applied a workaround while we work out some last-minute details.”

The situation is no different, and nobody is being deceived or misled or any problems buried.  It’s just a matter of changing how things get communicated.

Here’s another example.

Roger, Director of Software Engineering, sends an email to his entire management staff asking whether a certain scenario was considered when the product requirements were estimated.  Bill, a Senior Manager, replies-to-all, “Li, on my staff ,was supposed to consider that.  Did you, Li?”

Ouch!  There’s another bus-throwing incident, this time Bill tossing Li under one for no reason.  In fact, Bill made himself look worse, like someone who can’t trust his own staff.  Imagine Bill instead privately contacted Li and asked about the situation, and then summarized the answer.  Here are two possibilities:

“Li, on my staff, started to look at that but got pulled aside for some higher priority work.  I can share the details with you if you want, Roger.  If we need to go back and invest more into this, let me know and I’ll work with my team on it.”

“Li, on my staff, took a look at this and we’re all set.  Feel free to swing by and we can discuss the details.”

Frankly, the reply-to-all blame dodge and/or bus-toss is one of the most distasteful behaviors I encounter from otherwise civilized professionals.  We need to drill it into people’s heads that it’s a lose-lose proposal.