It's My Fault

Many years ago when I was in university, a friend approached me one day to ask if I'd be interested in going skydiving with her. She said she wanted to go but she wanted the company. I went. It was on my list of things "to try at least once before I die" so why not. =)

There was a full day of training for newbies - which included hands on (wearing the jumpsuits, learning the equipment, how the chutes are packed, jumping off picnic tables, etc.), videos, in-class instruction and discussion, and ended with an exam. The written exam was the last thing before everyone suited up for the plane ride up.

I was a bit surprised when 2 of the instructors pulled me aside after the exam to go over my test results. They wanted to discuss my answer to the final question. I think it was something like: "If something goes wrong, whose fault is it?"

I had run out of room trying to fill in a suitable answer. I had wondered why they didn't give much space to write. My answer was something along the lines of: "Well, if the wind blows me off course and I float into power lines and die it's nobody's fault. Or if I land in some marsh and get eaten by alligators I don't blame the alligators." and so on .. until I ran out of room at the end of the page. (There are no alligators in this part of Canada, by the way.. unless I land in a zoo.)

Looking back at my response now, I was doing what a good tester might do and thought of how many different ways something might "go wrong". But I missed the point. My instructors patiently kept rephrasing the question to see if they could get a different answer from me.

One of them blurted out: "Paul, is someone holding a gun to your head and asking you to jump out of the plane?" To which I replied "no." "Okay, so who is making you do this?" "No one," I replied. Wrong answer again. I still didn't get what they were trying to say.

Finally they explained to me that *I* was the only one making myself do anything here. If something goes wrong, it's simply my fault. Then they told me to cross out what I had written and write in big letters: "IT'S MY FAULT."

They explained that the whole exam didn't matter - none of the answers mattered except for this one question. If I didn't answer this question correctly then I wouldn't be allowed to jump. It was like signing the waiver.

I wrote what I needed to. I went up in a perfectly good plane and then I jumped out. It was an amazing experience and we all had the same silly grins on our faces when we met up with each other on the ground again.

I learned an important lesson that day. I didn't realise that I deflected responsibility for my own actions and decisions. It wasn't intentional, it was just how I thought about things in such abstract ways. When there are billions of different possible events that may occur from any given moment, why would I even consider taking responsibility for one of those outcomes if things go bad?

Well, it's easy. You make the choice yourself. Assuming no one is holding a gun to your head or threatening to harm your loved ones, then the choice is yours. When you make a choice you own the responsibility for the outcome. It's your fault if something goes wrong. It's your fault if something goes right.

Working in the software industry all these years, I have witnessed many times when people don't take responsibility for the decisions they make and how they choose to act - at all levels within the organisation. I have seen employees who whine about not getting the raise or praise that they think they deserve but they don't put in the care/attention/effort required. I have seen managers look for scapegoats when projects/things don't go as planned. I have witnessed the irrational, childish backtracking of senior management who refuse to admit that they ever did anything wrong or made a wrong decision.

Why is it so hard for people to take responsibility for the choices they make?

We make choices every day. Everyone does. Sometimes we have help making them, sometimes we don't. Some are big choices, others not so much.

What about the choices people make when they are at work? How they act? Or rather, how they choose to act towards others?

No one's putting a gun to your head and telling you to "test!" (Well, there was that one scene in the movie Swordfish that was quite entertaining, but that's the movies for you.)

Testing is not easy. Software Development is not easy. If you think it is, it's likely because you don't understand the problem.

As testers, we should aim to provide as much required information about the product/system/service as possible so that the stakeholders can make informed, timely choices. That is, we help others make big/important choices - hopefully good choices. Good information too late doesn't help either. (Note: what the stakeholders choose to do with that information is a different matter. Sometimes all we can do is just provide the information. How they use it is up to them. Good choices are not automatic, even when you do have the information you need in time.)

If the choice you make turns out not to be the right choice (i.e. you get an undesired outcome), then admit it, learn from it, and try not to make the same mistake the next time.

That's the rub - that process right there. If there is no admission of responsibility for the choice you make, do you learn from it? I don't think so. When I see someone deflect responsibility or look for a scapegoat, they aren't learning anything from the situation and will likely make the same mistakes the next time.

I have seen good leaders admit mistakes/poor choices to their departments. Admit that they've learned from it and will try something new or different to try and get a better outcome. That's the kind of leader I like working with/for. Someone who learns. Someone who grows. Someone willing to admit shortcomings and knows how to leverage the strengths others to help make better choices in the future.

No one is omniscient, so why hide your mistakes? There's some risk in every choice you make. That's life. Don't whine about it or blame others if things don't go your way. Take responsibility, learn from it and try not to make the same mistake again.

When was the last time you said "it's my fault"?