Building blocks of a ‘just’ culture

As community manager for the User Experience Professional Association (UxPA) – Minnesota’s chapter, I always live-tweet events from @uxpamn’s Twitter account. It’s something that makes me immensely thankful for Swype and also, since I tend to retain information better when I take notes or record it some way that forces me to process it in more ways than just auditory, I get more from the process as well (here’s a Storified version of the night).

The event, titled “Clockwork: One Size Never Fits All – Five Takes on UX Process Flexibility,” described how the team uses their signature process as a system of guardrails and milestones, not a series of deadlines and objectives that need to be met. Part of being flexible is recognizing when to hit the PAUSE button (meaning before a problem or potential derailment occurs).  Knowing when to stop and flex can be more important than delivering an inferior product by sticking to the original process.

I was reminded of a series of articles that came out a year or so ago, discussing the concept of a just culture. One of the most common building blocks of cultivating a just culture is the idea of blameless postmortems, popularized in a profile on Etsy by Business Insider (Etsy also wrote a response to the article, outlining their process further with pillars of how they intend to continue building toward a just culture). It’s defined as:

A culture that recognizes that competent professionals make mistakes and acknowledges that even competent professionals will develop unhealthy norms (shortcuts, “routine rule violations”), but has zero tolerance for reckless behavior.

Obviously, differences come up where Clockwork focuses on catching problems before they occur, and Etsy afterward. What they have in common is that both show an appreciation for the creativity and humanity of their employees and clients, as well as a willingness to look at alternatives and consider what’s best for all involved. I particularly like the final thought of Etsy’s piece:

Failure happens. In order to understand how failures happen, we first have to understand our reactions to failure.

I love the idea of a just culture. It’s clearly possible to put into effect, but I’d love to read  more about organizations who have made the transition/are transitioning (or trying to) implement these principles, particularly since they seem to strike more to the core of employees, and developing out a system in which they feel comfortable coming forward–and in which their co-workers don’t feel victimized or blamed.

Compared with pieces of literature that claim that it takes years to change a corporate culture (and I would hazard to guess even longer in higher education), is it a grassroots movement or does it have to start at the top?


  1. We’re about a year into it right now in our healthcare organization. It most definitely has to come from the top down – and it requires complete commitment from HR. That said, it has the power to truly transform an organization’s culture of safety, error reporting, management of behavioral choices and system vulnerabilities.


      1. Probably the biggest impacts have been its use in the peer review process, the event investigation process, and the performance management process for employees. In each of these venues, emphasis is placed on (1) separating the outcome from the analysis of the events and choices that were made and (2) using the Just Culture algorithm to appropriately discern between human error, at-risk behavior, and reckless behavior.


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