Errors and error culture

Sven Tiffe gave a very interesting talk at the last AgileTuesday, our Munich Scrum regulars’ table, about the role of culture, or as he said, attitude at Google.

Sure, there’s a lot of tech innovation going on with them – and Google is a very tech-loving “club” with a lot of nerds. They probably maintain that, too, and have a very sophisticated application system where peer review plays a big role – and that will certainly preferentially select more tech-loving nerds.

I would be very interested in many of the details that Sven has left out (as would many others) – but for most of them we would have to go to Google ourselves.

I was not fascinated by the technology, but by another aspect of the lecture: the error culture.

What Sven illustrated very vividly was the context that it is precisely the ability to make and openly admit mistakes that plays a central role in continuous improvement. For example, when bug reports are logged, the employees’ real names are published internally, but that’s only possible because no one has to worry about consequences at the same time. Also, a really amazing example was the story of the colleague who accidentally posted an internal memo (heavily criticizing company management) publicly.

It was also interesting in the subsequent (fishbowl) discussion how difficult it is to take such a culture at face value. The thing with the plain names in the error reports can still be attributed to a different approach in the USA – but I was already surprised about some misunderstandings.

“Allowing mistakes” was sometimes misunderstood as “allowing mediocre quality to be delivered”. In my understanding, it’s the other way around: if you want to deliver top quality, you have to take every opportunity to learn – and that also means that no one has to hide or hide their skeletons in the closet.

That would also turn a phrase “Google can afford to do this because of its size” upside down: Google has gotten big because it has developed a culture where rigorous quality assurance also takes advantage of and exposes every opportunity to learn.

“There are no mistakes, only opportunities to learn” is something you sometimes hear – it is unfortunately often just grey theory – it seems in some organisations there is more to it than that. In any case, it’s a principle to follow.