The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

It’s a mistake

As teams seek to learn from the errors that occurred during a project, they can experience resistance to such efforts. When this occurs, it rarely is a resistance to the learning. It most frequently is as resistance to investigating the error.

Most often such resistance is based on the confusion between error and fault.

People have become accustomed to using error, mistake, and fault as if they were synonyms. It’s worth it to investigate how they are interlinked.

Error comes from the Latin error, meaning “wandering”. According to Wikipedia, it is an action that is inaccurate or incorrect.

In distinguishing between error and mistake Wikipedia also suggest the following: “An ‘error’ is a deviation from accuracy or correctness. A ‘mistake’ is an error caused by a fault: the fault being misjudgment, carelessness, or forgetfulness.”

This description introduces the idea of “fault” and with this the possibility of “blame”. It also introduces a categorization of errors. Some errors are caused by a fault, but not all.

Fault exists as a legal term where it refers to “legal blameworthiness and responsibility in each area of law”. It builds on the basic principle that an individual “should be able to contemplate the harm that his actions may cause, and therefore should aim to avoid such actions.”

This means that to determine if there has been a fault, individual responsibility and intention have to be considered. Developing the ability to answer this question is the task of the legal system and its reason of existence.

However, fault isn’t solely used within the legal system. It is just as present in everyday life. It appears for example in the blame people use to react to a perceived fault. Wikipedia describes blame as “the act of censuring, holding responsible, making negative statements about an individual or group that their actions or inaction are socially or morally irresponsible.”

The idea that something is “socially or morally irresponsible” leads to perceive it as a fault. But to get to this perception the culture or society needs to have “norms or expectations for behavior or its consequences” and it needs the assumption that these norms and expectations can “be derived from the intention of the actor or from the expectations of other individuals or from a social grouping or from social norms”.

In contrast to laws, norms and expectations within a culture will not always be written down. They can result from tradition, implicit rules, or habits a group developed. Culture exists based on these norms and expectations. And culture becomes a system seeking to keep them in place.

Thus, departures from social norms invite reactions. All of which receive a label depending on the system within which they are treated.

This can be a simple instruction of how to behave in the given group, but it can also be to call them out as “misbehavior”. The legal system will provide labels like “crime” or “misdemeanor”. Religions will provide other labels for behavior that departs from its social norms, “sin” is one of them.

Coming back to the description of errors, there also is a generalization of errors called “human error” that describes errors based on intention, norms, and consequences.

The addition of consequence connects the idea of errors with results that may occur. Errors are now viewed out of a perspective in which individual responsibility is linked to desired behavior and desired outcomes.

There is a perfectly valid reason for this, especially when seen within a specific context, that is one where lives are at risk. And indeed, “Human error has been cited as a primary cause contributing factor in disasters and accidents in industries as diverse as nuclear power, aviation, space exploration, and medicine.”

It is a situation in which avoiding failure is important. Failure being the condition or state of not being able to meet an intended objective.

Once the link between error and risk was discovered, the desire to reduce risk spread.

To an extent that there is a fantasy that if people just work enough at it, they’ll be able to prevent risks altogether.

It created an idea where error became blameworthy altogether.

Errors being blameworthy transformed them into faults.

The presence of fault establishing the need for punishment.

Almost transforming the perception of failure into a sin.

Conditions under which it is normal for a team to struggle with the idea that an error can also be seen as an opportunity.


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