Etsy's Winning Secret: Don't Play The Blame Game!

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Photo: Lara604 on Flickr

Picture this: The board members of Etsy, the hot Brooklyn-based startup that’s reinventing handcrafted e-commerce, are meeting by video conference.The connection breaks up.

At most companies, the obvious next question is: Who’s the CEO going to fire?

Not at Etsy, though. And that’s not just because Chad Dickerson is a nice guy with what seems like a permanent smile on his face.

It’s because Dickerson instituted a culture of blamelessness across the company since he got promoted from CTO to CEO last July—a culture that’s allowed Etsy employees to take more risks and move faster.

As a result, Etsy has delivered results that wowed its investors, including new mobile products and accelerating sales growth last December, during the critical holiday-shopping season. They rewarded Etsy with a new $40 million investment round and a $688 million valuation.

Clearly, no hard feelings over the video-conference snafu.

So how did Dickerson and his team do it?

Mistakes happen. When they happen at Etsy, they’re reviewed in what’s called a “blameless post-mortem.”

Dickerson started the practice in the technology department as CTO, then took it companywide.

This is not some wacky-DUMBO-hipster management idea. It’s a management principle known as “just culture” adapted from fields like healthcare and manufacturing, where blameless reporting of medical mistakes has led to better patient care and fewer accidents.

“One of the things I allowed people to do is make mistakes more freely,” said Dickerson. “The best way to learn to ride a bike is to ride the bike and fall down.”

Holding a blameless post-mortem is pretty simple—once you get people past the natural human instincts of pointing fingers and hiding mistakes: “We have a ground rule that the purpose of a post-mortem is to find out what happened and how to make it better, not to find a person to blame.”

 As a result, said Dickerson, “what we’ve seen is a company that’s learning and moving faster.”

John Allspaw, senior vice president of technical operations, is in charge of Etsy’s post-mortems—even the nontechnical ones, like the one where he helped Etsy’s information-technology department get to the bottom of the video-conferencing system’s failure.

In another example, a developer broke the system which let users favourite, or bookmark, items they were thinking about buying.

“Less-skilled companies name, blame, and shame,” said Allspaw.

It’s not about avoiding accountability. In a blameless culture, it’s easier for people to take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them.

“Developers already feel quite guilty when they break the site,” said Allspaw.

Allspaw and Dickerson contrasted Etsy’s culture to others they’d experienced, where blame was a big factor. (Neither named names, but Dickerson and Allspaw both joined Etsy from Yahoo.)

Etsy even had a post-mortem about seating arrangements during a recent office expansion. Seems small, but think about the fingerpointing and grumbling that goes on behind the scenes about such moves. Isn’t it better to be open about it—and figure out how to improve


  • Assume good will.  “Employees are making decisions based on what they think is right for the company,” said Allspaw.
  • Identify causes, not culprits. Accountability happens naturally as people learn the facts. Focus on exploring what happened—and recognise that in complex systems, there’s rarely one root cause.
  • Take your time. People used to blaming cultures may take time to come out of their shell and share mistakes and learnings freely.

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