The Responsibility Process Phase 2: I Justify and Make Excuses

This text series goes through the model presented in Christopher Avery’s book The Responsibility Process. According to that model every person takes certain mental steps when they encounter adversity or problems. These steps are lay blame, justify, shame, obligation and responsibility.

The purpose of this series is to introduce the different steps and guide towards responsibility. And also to consider what use this all could have from the point of view of a technical expert. Further background for this series is found here.

The second step of responsibility process in our example

Do you still remember our case study? The changes of the latest sprint have been taken to production and something has crashed the client’s checkout page. The PM has called the team for a meeting and asked: “What on earth has happened?!?” Immediately everyone has mentally gone through a list of  possibilities of what or whom to blame, as is completely natural.

You, as well, started with the very same thing. After a moment you caught yourself blaming and decided that it is not what you want to do. This makes you rise to the next step of the responsibility process, and that is justifying and making excuses.

Good news is that it is a step forward. Bad news is that it is still pretty much blaming the things outside of your control. Now, instead of people, we end up blaming the circumstances.

You blame the schedule of the project, the test cases, the outdatedness of the test environment, the impossible amount of work. You justify the mistake with the fact that your child has kept you up at nights, you are tired, overloaded and stressed out. Is it no wonder that in this situation something like this could happen?

Blaming the environment and making excuses doesn’t help

The environment, as well as other people, are surely part of the problem. They always are. But like with blaming, also with justifying we get stuck in the pit. If the problem is in the environment and circumstances, the only way to get rid of the problems is that the environment and the circumstances change. Counting on that makes us once again helpless victims.

It is easy for us to target our indignation and agony outside of ourselves. It’s easy to blame the outdated technology, the stiff process model, the excessive bureaucracy and the stupid client. But as long as we blame the environment and the circumstances and use them to explain our own behaviour and condition, we live with our problems rather than solving them. We’re merely coping.

Living with the problems takes a lot of energy. It supplies us with the feeling of powerlessness and being stuck. It is a source of frustration, repressed anger and constant agony.

Especially problematic is that whole teams might feed each other’s stories of justification: ”this is just what it’s like here” and ”this is what this technology is like” and ”this is just how these projects go” and ”this is just what clients are like”. It’s easier to tolerate the problem together with others than alone, but it still keeps eating everybody up until the end of the world. Or at least up until we together decide to stop blaming and justifying the situation.

Again, there is another option

Avery writes:

”To escape Justify, we want to become vitally aware of the stories we are telling ourselves. We must recognize that we’re positioning ourselves as powerless. When we realize this, we usually choose to stop justifying for that problem.”

So, also the justifying ends once we become aware of it and decide that we don’t want to blame the circumstances either. It is essential to analyse your choices of propositions. Do I blame the weather, traffic, rush, culture, economic situation or something else for the bad mood and indignation I am experiencing? Am I trying the roll the cause of the problem away from me?

As a result of practise we might become aware of the blaming and justifying relatively quickly and get to rise fast past those steps. Then we end up on the next step which is shame.

What are all the possible locations outside of you, where the problem might lie? For how long have you been blaming the circumstances and wasted your energy on justifying the problematic situation? These topics are also discussed on our Slack community!

TL;DR: On phase 2 of the responsibility process we blame the circumstances

  • After blaming others we turn to blaming the circumstances and the environment. With the circumstances we justify that which has happened or what the situation is now. And we make excuses for our own behaviour.
  • We might spend a long time blaming the environment and thinking that there is nothing we can do about our problems.
  • In this pit we are stuck, the problem doesn’t disappear and all proceeding is up to whether the world around us changes – which it usually doesn’t do.
  • The way forward in the responsibility process is to first become aware of the justifying. Then we must simply decide that we will do it no longer.
  • After that we get to rise to the next step of the process, and that is shame.

Or what do you think?

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