As a Manager, Who’s Fault is it When Things Go Wrong?

The simple answer? you. It’s always you. Any other answer is displacement of blame.

Why is the accountability on the manager?

Ultimately, it’s up to the manager to ensure failure doesn’t happen. But that’s not reality. Failure will happen regardless of how many safeguards you put in place. Engineering is a human activity, and no matter what, there will always be something that comes up. But no matter what happens, if a bug in the code causes a regression, someone forgets to run a shell script after release, an acceptance criteria is missed, a project finishes late, or any other number of possible issues, in the end it doesn’t matter if a specific engineer wrote that bug, or forgot something, in the end it’s the manager’s responsibility to make sure work is done, and done in a quality way. It’s up to the manager to get their team on board, follow the process, embrace the work, and take ownership of their work. But in the end, it’s still up to you to own up to it. A good manager knows this, and embraces mistakes as means to improve themselves, and their team. A bad manager places the blame on individuals, forgetting that a team works together. There’s no single point of failure, but there is a person that takes ownership of the team. And that’s you. So, be a good manager, take ownership of mistakes, and most importantly, make mistakes actionable so failures become a positive thing in the end. In all of those scenarios, we can trace it back to how the manager needs to do something:

  • A bug got released? Did the team review it? Did the team approve the PR but just didn’t catch it? Were they too busy? Distracted? Didn’t have time? Did the work get QA’d? Did e2e tests miss it? Was the bug related to the ticket, or a side effect that would have been hard to foresee?
  • Did some forget to do a follow-up task after a release? Why did they forget? Was it not documented on what was needed to be done? Were they too busy with too many things? Did they not know how?
  • An acceptance criteria got missed? Was the work reviewed and QA’d? Was the acceptance criteria clear or easy to miss?
  • A project ran late? This is usually due to a large number of things. A good retro and root cause analysis should unearth multiple things that contributed to it. There’s rarely a single point of failure for a project to run late.

As you can see, when you’re working as a team, there’s never truly a single point of failure. It’s always a team effort, and a team effort for things to go wrong. But in the end, in just about everything above, there are many things that the manager should be aware of, and keeping an eye on, to help mitigate issues. It’s impossible to prevent them, but when you look back, things should be more clear, and you should have a good idea on how to help the team improve and avoid making the same mistake again.

How to embrace failure

A good manager turns failure on its head. A good manager embraces failure! Failure doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Sure, failure isn’t comfortable. But change, and growth is never comfortable. A beautiful gemstone only shows it’s true beauty through friction. So there are two key points here.

When failure does happen, always make it positive! Show that you don’t punish people for simply making a mistake. Remind the team that we’re all human. No one wants to fear losing their job for making a mistake. When you enable the team to let go of that fear, they become more involved in the team, because they feel safe. And someone that feels safe will bring more positive energy to the team, and is more likely to stick around.

When failure does happen, make it actionable. Do a root cause analysis on what happened, and don’t allow people to push blame. Once you understand why something happened, simply do something about it! Make it actionable, and reportable. That way the team feels like if something does happen, it’s simply a tool for the team to grow and get better. By making it actionable and reportable, everyone can see and trace your, and the team’s progress.

Overall, failure is often a scary thing, especially for individual contributors. Too many people get fired for too small of a mistake. But as a manager, you must realize that problems that come up are ultimately on you. And most importantly, enable to team to let go of their fears of making a mistake by enabling failure to be a positive and a teachable moment for everyone.