As an introduction to a discussion on Pushpay’s “just culture”, one of the company’s senior engineers, Marcus Bristol, told a story of shoplifting as a young boy.
“When I was a kid, I used to shoplift a lot”, Bristol confessed to a crowd of local and international software developers and industry professionals at the DevOpsDays Auckland 2017 event.
The crowd broke out in laughter.
“We would hit the big department stores, and because we were kids we would steal snack food.”
“One day, we eventually got caught. But we only had a chocolate bar, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“We ended up down at the police station where they took us on a tour of the jail cells. We were panicking, thinking we were going to be arrested - but, in hindsight, that’s stupid, who would arrest someone for something like that.”
“It was my first exposure to something called ‘just culture’.”
“At Pushpay, we want our engineers to be able to push their changes to production as often as they can without a fear of repercussions. They still need to be accountable for the changes they push out, but we need to remove that barrier of fear.”
Essentially, continues Bristol, it’s a culture that allows the boss to hear bad news.
The opposite of a just culture is retributive culture, which Bristol likens to getting caught behind schoolyard smoking, and suspended as a result, which is a method where "hurt is met with hurt".
On the other hand, there is restorative culture – just culture.
Instead of culture where hurt is meet with more hurt, a just culture sees hurt met with healing.
Where a retributive culture focuses on who did wrong and what punishment they deserve, a restorative culture focuses on bringing many other people into the conversation, explains Bristol.
A restorative culture focuses on who is hurt and what do these people need to heal, as well as who’s obligation it is to meet that need to heal and to help fix that particular issue.
But most importantly, it focuses largely on ways in which the community can be involved in the conversation.
“It’s no good if one person breaks something and that one person learns from it. We need to spread that lesson amongst the company and the community so this issue doesn’t happen again.”
Offences that would be consider “fireable” in workplaces functioning under a retributive culture are considered “lesson learned” at Pushpay, and companies that operate with a just culture.
When something goes wrong, instead of the person who did it being fired, businesses with a just culture come together to figure out who was hurt and how the issued can be fixed.
Bristol says that this also results in the implementation of a lot of new practices that the company still implements today.
But practically, is this "just culture" approach realistic?
How exactly do you analyse what’s gone wrong when everyone is in panic mode with their guards up in the wake of an incident?
“We do it with a thing called Blameless Postmortem.”
“The engineer who is responsible for this change gives a detailed of what actions they took - what lead up to this issue - what effects they observed at each point of the process and what their expectations were because obviously what happened wasn’t what they expected.”
“They also include any assumptions they made along the way. This creates a timeline of events that happened leading up to the issue.”
This shifts the focus away from the fact that the individual has done something wrong, and to a more outwardly focus on how everyone can learn something from the incident.
“This is because our main goal is to fix a problem and learn from it.”
“And we do one every time there is an opportunity to learn. It doesn’t have to be a production incident. It could be a near miss. For example, if I deploy something and I take down the QA environment we will do a blameless postmortem to find out what happened and how can we ensure that this mistake doesn’t happen in production.”
“Most importantly, this is written down and not spoken. We don’t have a meeting, we have a Wiki page and we write down all the details. That means everybody has a chance to have a say.”
“Quite often in meetings, the extroverts are the ones that run the meeting and the extroverts are the ones that make the decisions, while the introverts sit in the corner trying to have a say and have an impact but are too afraid to speak out.”
“By writing it down, everybody has a voice.”