Developing a Culture of Learning

No matter what you do or where you work, one of our biggest fears is mistakes and failure. Sometimes the fear of failure stops us from innovating, from taking risks— or worse, it leads to trying to hide our mistakes. At Pushpay, we innovate and develop software to help churches and organizations build community, connection and belonging. A natural part of innovation is failure— learning how to fail fast, push forward, and incorporate your learnings. We believe that in order to develop the best software, we not only have to understand the mission of our customers—we have to create an environment where people can grow, learn and push beyond barriers to help create impactful technology.

As Vice President of Engineering at Pushpay, I’ve been fortunate to work with a dynamic international team deeply committed to serving our clients. But, as anyone working in a fast-paced tech environment knows, mistakes happen. I’ve seen—and made—my fair share of blunders during my career. Here at Pushpay, we’ve continued to grow, develop, and achieve great things together—and I attribute much of that success to what we call blameless culture.

Blame Versus Accountability

In order for our teams to truly live out a blameless culture, we first need to agree on what we mean by blame and accountability. The most appropriate definitions are:

Blame (verb) : feel or declare that (someone or something) is responsible for a fault or wrong.

Accountability (noun) : the quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.

It’s fair to say that being blamed is not a welcome experience. We would all like to avoid being blamed if at all possible; really, should the outcome of any situation be to make someone feel bad?

Even more than the negative emotions associated, assigning blame trains people to discard accountability in favor of self preservation. They are less likely to give their account in the future for fear of receiving even more blame and punishment—the opposite of what we want.

Members of a team must feel comfortable to give their true account of what drove their actions and decision making. Instead of them believing their best course of action is to cover up the cracks and issues, they need to have the confidence to put their hand up and accept accountability for an issue. And that confidence must be instilled by leadership, grounded in a blameless culture that prioritizes learning and people.

Accountability in Action

Mistakes will always happen. Failure is the true source of experience points, not success. Therefore, how do we create an environment where people are able to fail quickly and safely, learn from that failure, and share that learning so that we can collectively succeed?

There is one guiding principle I like to start with: Everyone comes to work to do a good job.

I’ve never come across a scenario where I knew that someone came to work just to mess some stuff up. Nobody has ever said to me, “I just wanted to do a terrible job today and make everyone’s life a little bit worse.” So the first stage is to remember that everyone comes to work to do a good job.

The second thing to remember is that—unless you’re doing it wrong—you hired good people who can learn from their mistakes.

These first two points together tell you that when things go wrong, the problem lies with the system or the process, not with the people. Voice this concept often to reassure them that they are not at fault. This is critical if you want to promote psychological safety, or you’ll quickly learn that self-blame is a big problem to look out for.

The third thing is to start implementing a blameless post-mortem process. For a SaaS company, incidents in production environments are often rife with blame. I’ve heard about companies where the first question a leader asks during an incident is, “Whose fault is this?” This should never be asked at any level of an organization. It’s a sign that there is something wrong with the culture.

Living Out A Blameless Culture

When we first started to implement the blameless post-mortem process, there was a situation that really put the concept to the test. One day, one of our most senior engineers ran a script as per our usual process. Unfortunately, it was inadvertently run against our production database server, corrupting it and forcing us to reconstruct everything from backups, causing a three-hour outage. I remember thinking, “This will be the true test of whether this blameless thing actually works.”

That engineer went on to become our SVP of Product and Engineering… so I guess it worked pretty well. In fact, he would tell this story regularly as a way to explain some of our operational safety protocols, like co-piloting manual changes in production.

He owned the outcome and used it to help others learn. He championed blameless culture which enabled all of us to grow exponentially over the subsequent years. I think back on that time, and can only imagine how differently things would have turned out in a culture of blame.

The Impact at Pushpay

We have grown quite rapidly here. Freeing up our people to continue to innovate and learn from their mistakes is a huge part of how we’ve been able to achieve that success.

And it’s one of the things our associates love about our culture. Blamelessness comes up again and again in employee surveys as something people appreciate most, and will take with them when they move on.

We’re incredibly proud of this aspect of our culture, and we hope that you too can benefit from implementing a blameless and just culture in your church or organization. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture as pioneered at Etsy.