Program Management

2 must-haves to build a culture of learning

Success can come in many different forms, but if your organization wants to have a chance to continue succeeding, learning must be part of its DNA. Similarly, learning can be achieved by taking different paths (training, coaching, sharing, teaching, …), but most of the opportunities come from day-to-day work since that’s where people spend most of their time. However, practice by itself doesn’t guarantee learning.

Allowing team members to voice their thoughts and building an environment that stimulates taking risks are required to convert experience and practice into learning. However, these can only be achieved if psychological safety and blamelessness are present.

Psychological Safety

Can you think of an occasion at work when you held your thoughts? If so, why did you do that? Didn’t you feel comfortable sharing them? Were you afraid of saying anything ‘wrong’, of any sort of retaliation, or of sounding incompetent? While several factors (introversion, people in the room, …) can contribute to people not to voice their opinions, lack of psychological safety is definitely a common one.

Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. That means that people should feel comfortable to share their ideas/suggestions/mistakes/concerns with their teams with no fear of being punished. Sometimes reactions apparently as harmless as a giggle or cutting someone off can erode the psychological safety of a team.

Workplaces with low psychological safety can jeopardize the ability of teams to innovate and to learn from each other. New ideas usually come from tiny increments of work through a sequence of several, maybe unintentional events. A comment may trigger a discussion, that raises a problem, that drives ideas, that may lead to a brand-new product. However, that flow will not happen unless people feel safe to speak up and that may lead to missing many learning opportunities. The way an organization handles incidents tells a lot about how much psychological safe is valued in its culture.


All the services are down and you start receiving tons of notifications. A war room is created and then the ‘fun’ starts. If that gives you goosebumps, you may have had a traumatic experience. If that brings you some memories of collaboration, teamwork, and synergy, you may have experienced an incident where the focus was solely on addressing the problem and on avoiding it to happen again.

Blamelessness is the notion of switching responsibility from people to systems and processes and it fosters psychological safety. That means switches from ‘who’ to ‘what’. Teams should assume that people have done their best with the knowledge and tools that they had at hand. That’s similar to the Prime Directive for Retrospectives and bringing that up in the first incidents and post-mortems can set the scene for a learning instead of a blaming experience.

The Bad Apple Theory (or Old View) maintains that:

  • A complex system would be fine assuming you don’t have unreliable people (Bad Apples)
  • Humans are the dominant contributor to accidents
  • Failures come as unpleasant surprises and are introduced by unreliable people

Instead of thinking that we have bad people in safe systems, we should think that we have well-intentioned people in imperfect systems. That mindset will drive your team to learn from failures and build the foundation for them to focus on problem-solving instead of covering their tracks not to be blamed later.

Another aspect to watch out for to ensure blameless incidents is hindsight bias. If somebody says “I knew that was happening. It was so obvious!”, that should ring a bell. Hindsight bias is the common tendency for people to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they actually were. For example, if a friend says after a game that he knew since the beginning that his team would win it. There was no way to know that for sure, but he/she actually believed that he/she knew. This sort of attitude needs to be purged from any team. A way to handle that without calling out someone in front of many people is to have a 1:1 session and describe why those comments would damage the team’s capacity to handle and learn from an incident.

Fundamental attribution error can also be another call for action if noticed. That’s the tendency to assume that somebody’s action depends more on the type of person he/she is than the environment that influenced that action. For instance, somebody pushes an update that breaks a system and a colleague concludes that that person is not reliable since he didn’t graduate from a renowned university. Again, that represents a type of behavior that deviates from the main focus: understanding the problem, fixing it, and learning from it.

Being able to identify and fix these common counterproductive behaviors is required to build an environment where people know they will not be blamed and that they will be safe to thrive, take some risks, and learn.