What can great teams tell us about leadership and fostering a no-blame delivery culture to drive future success?

The ascension of the All Blacks rugby union team over the past decades has been in large part due to the changes that have been made via cultural transformation, such as removing ‘blame’ and replacing it with personal accountability and shared ownership. Leaders in the team got focused on creating leaders, not ‘telling’ players or blaming them for mistakes’ (James Kerr, 2013).

By empowering the team it has fostered a confidence and continuous success in reaching new heights. They work hard for each other and enjoy their responsibility, despite the extremely high pressure of an entire country’s expectations that winning every game is the only acceptable result.

In 2013, the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service) held the Berwick review into better outcomes and examined the often-systemic failings across the national workplace environment. Two quotes from the review summed up the findings and improvements required:

  1. Good people will fail when their working conditions do not provide them with the conditions for success;
  2. In the end, culture will trump rules, standards, and controls every single time, and achieving a vastly safer NHS will depend far more on major cultural change than on a new regulatory regime.

These are two examples that illustrate the importance of culture in the workplace, but how does this relate to the project landscape and the role project assurance plays in uncovering gaps? And what does this tell us about the importance of leadership and ownership in delivering success and the importance of removing blame from the ‘success narrative’?

The Harm of a ‘Just Get it Done’ Culture

There is growing evidence that the ‘Just Get it Done’ approach (i.e. regulatory regime and controls) to project delivery is not only harmful to employees and project teams, but it reduces productivity over time.

There is a large body of evidence that demonstrates that a positive environment will lead to dramatic benefits for employers, employees, and ultimately the bottom line. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reported that $500 billion is syphoned off the US economy because of workplace stress and 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job.

Many companies have a cut-throat, high pressure, highly regulated culture to drive success. If not kept in check, this kind of culture can manifest itself into one of blame, finger-pointing, and lack of ownership. These cultural characteristics have a heavy impact and can be amplified in the pressure cooker of a project environment. Typically, such issues would be identified via project assurance but interestingly, it’s this same assurance that can play a destructive role in a project environment.

Instead of using project assurance to guide and enhance success, organisations with a blame culture use it as a witch hunt or to simply go through the motions as a box-ticking exercise with no meaningful insights. And the impact is allowing projects to continue to labour under a sub-standard ownership and delivery culture.

The Costs to Productivity of a Blame Culture

The continuous failure of projects in blame cultures has significant impacts on the company’s profitability, productivity and in a worrying sign, the health and even mortality of their employees. For example:

Health: The impact is real and potentially catastrophic. One large-scale study conducted by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute showed a strong link between leadership behaviour and heart disease in employees. Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart.

Disengagement: The cost of employee disengagement in unhealthy work environments is often hidden but can have a huge impact. In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organisation, disengaged workers had:

  • 37% higher absenteeism
  • 49% more accidents, and
  • 60% more errors and defects.

In organisations with low employee engagement scores, they experienced a 65% lower share price over time. Importantly, businesses with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100% more job applications.

Cost of Failure: In addition to productivity impacts are the hard costs of repeatedly making the same mistakes. The PMI recently highlighted that US$122 million was wasted for every US$1 billion invested due to poor projects.

Fostering a Learning Culture

A true learning and empowered environment come from one place, and one place only — a positive culture.

The All Blacks know that to achieve success on the field, their players need to be empowered. To be empowered they need to be educated, personally and professionally developed and take responsibility and have shared ownership. This doesn’t happen overnight.

While this can often seem to be the proverbial elephant, knowing where to start can be the hardest bit. As the metaphor goes an elephant can only be consumed one bite at a time, so where to start?

The first bite is the recognition that leaders need to provide a safe environment in which mistakes are not seen as something to punish but a potential learning experience. A respectful atmosphere where workers voices are heard and appreciated.

A key then to making this work is that staff must feel valued both in their contribution to the team and at a deeper level, as unique individuals which then allows the tough solution-focused conversations.

Fostering a ‘Safe’ Culture Leads to Improved Outcomes

The only way for individuals and teams to continuously improve is to feel safe in pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of. This necessitates mistakes and rather than moralise those mistakes or the person’s effort, they are used as a platform to initiate improvement.

We see this evidenced in the changes recommended for the NHS.

Amongst the recommendations from the Berwick report for the NHS were the following:

  • Abandon blame as a tool and trust the goodwill and good intentions of the staff
  • Recognise that transparency is essential and expect and insist on it
  • Give NHS staff career-long help to learn, master and apply modern methods for quality control, quality improvement and quality planning
  • Make sure pride and joy in work, not fear, infuse the NHS

Tangible steps were then recommended, which included:

Leadership – A ‘collective leadership’ approach was recommended, with leaders influencing team activity so as to ensure innovation, a focus on quality, and continuous improvement i.e. Leaders should:

  • Create leaders and foster personal accountability and resilience
  • Welcome feedback and insights from the team.

Project Assurance plays a critical part in developing transparency.

Recruitment – Recruitment processes within NHS hospitals moved beyond the assessment of academic attributes alone, considering other values such as integrity, empathy and resilience. NHS hospitals are advised to adopt a system of ‘values-based recruitment’ i.e. Capability is one thing but culture alignment is everything. Make sure the project team is made up of people that have the capability and are culturally aligned.

Continuous Learning Culture – Leaders should be assisted with developing coaching and mentoring skills and staff to be empowered to influence the design of learning i.e. Build a safe culture where collaborative learning is the norm and built from the ground up.

So, Do You Know Your Delivery Culture?

You may think you do but are you sure? To keep on top of your project delivery culture objective feedback through Project Assurance is critical. Transparent, empowered leadership will welcome external feedback – and if a blame culture exists or is developing steps can be taken to correct it. When implemented well, Assurance will highlight areas that will enhance success. Assurance in a continuous learning culture is not a witch hunt. It will highlight where enhancements can be made to increase the chance of team success, move you away from a blame culture (if one exists) and on the path to better project outcomes.

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