Good intentions are not enough

Jeremy has written a powerful, thought-provoking piece about many important aspects of participation, criticism, and apology. Have a read, it's good stuff. I was going to write an email to Jeremy, but since I now have this blog, I thought I'd write it down here.

The central theme of Jeremy's post is that good intentions are not enough. Regardless of the skill or stature of a person or team, or the respect you hold for them, there should always be space to call out decisions and debate their ideas and actions. I like this idea. It's important.

It is a responsibility of the team to communicate their actions clearly. To marshall productive participation and feedback is not the easiest thing to do well, but it’s worth it.

Likewise, it is the responsibility of those doing the criticism to be mindful of the people behind the work. All too often, criticism is perceived as tackling the player, not the ball. It's an age-old internet problem.

The Chrome team dropped the ball and generated some heat in their process of developing an improved user experience for web apps. It was a sequencing problem rather than an outright bad move. They had the best of intentions, but it was a stumble nonetheless. That's okay. It's human. As long as there is a reasonable opportunity to challenge a decision in a safe way that doesn't risk ruining relationships and sparking a flame war, then it's a Good Thing.

Jeremy admits he was a little too "strident" in his critique of their decision. Wouldn't it be nice if we had an x-ray that could peer into the true intention behind words on a screen? Sadly we don't have that x-ray yet (for most of humanity's existence, we had body language to enrich our words and enhance understanding, but we live in interesting times where so much, perhaps even the majority, of our communication lacks body language) and so we have to be mindful of how our words might be perceived, and what the ramifications of publishing them might be. That's not to say we should hold off completely, but it does mean we should be mindful if we're to be most effective.

This idea of good intentions coupled with very human failings was brought to my mind again when I saw this tweet from James:

It reminded me of an episode of Radio 4's Start the Week entitled Embracing Failure and Uncertainty. In it Matthew Syed talks about how the aviation industry has a much more effective, healthy approach to failure and mistakes than the health industry. It's worth a listen.

Then I found the NHS has implemented a new, legally binding approach to tackling the toxic "blame culture" prevalent today, much like that which has been so successful in aviation. Matthew Syed, who helped create the new process, writes:

Independent investigation is at the heart of this process. Professionals are given every reason to cooperate, because they know that investigations are not about finding scapegoats, but learning lessons.

Indeed, professionals are given a legal safe space so they speak up honestly, and can be penalised only where negligence or malevolence is proven.

Clearly, the vast majority of medical professional and airline pilots have the best of intentions, but mistakes do happen. In the case of these two industries, it can have life threatening and life changing consequence.

So good intentions are not enough. We need to improve the culture surrounding criticism and debate. We need to make it safer. We need to take ego out of the equation. We need to make it about learning lessons and not about blame.

Only by combating the "blame culture" in the NHS can transparency and meaningful change take place.

Hospitals that have developed a culture of open reporting have produced outstanding results.

While the web industry probably doesn't need anything like a formal independent investigation body (that role is served by the people and their blogs, after all), we can learn lessons from the successes of the aviation industry and the failures of the health industry. How appropriate.

The same approach is being used to improve other disciplines, too.

Consider, for example, how the success of British sport has been driven by a similar commitment to continual improvement.

In cycling, for example, there is a constant emphasis on discovering weaknesses so they can be turned into strengths.

When Sir Dave Brailsford became head of British cycling, he was driven by insatiable curiosity to improve every single process.

So, he tested the bike design in a wind tunnel and tweaked it for a gain in aerodynamic efficiency.

He transported mattresses from stage to stage during the Tour de France for a marginal improvement in sleep quality.

These kinds of marginal gains can and do happen in the web industry. Frequently. The ease of participation and communication enhances the feedback loop. Unfortunately, it also enhances the likelihood of miscommunication, bruised egos and flame wars.

Perhaps projects could adopt techniques such as check-listing when working on new features to ensure communication is effective?

The introduction of a five-point checklist - a marginal change - saved 1,500 lives over 18 months in the state of Michigan alone.

How many needless flame wars could be saved with similar processes within development teams? How about we develop our own personal checklists to help us better reflect on our own input? I don't know, but ideas worth exploring.

As it happens, if you're interested in exploring these ideas of improving our relationship with failure, Matthew Syed has a book on the subject called Black Box Thinking. I've not read it, but it has received critical acclaim and, indeed, it's because of the book that the NHS asked him to help create their new approach.

In this particular saga of the "regressive web app," Jeremy conducted his own investigation, found himself at fault, and shows us all how to offer a sincere apology for the hurt caused, while still standing by his original point. A deft feat and something to learn from, for sure.

Alex responded in a measured way to Jeremy that cleared things up further. For what it's worth, I like the idea of "minimal-ui" style chrome for PWAs, too - an idea discussed in the comments. More thoughts on that in my next post.