Scape Goat

CategoryAntiPattern
Problem: A project is visibly in trouble.

Context: The troubles, even failure, of the project are highly visible. People are angry and disgruntled and some are even leaving. The project is late or over budget or in serious technical difficulty. Action must be taken. The project shows up in every status meeting as a negative icon.

Forces: Solution: SomeoneMustBePunished, whether through demotion, rescoping or removal of responsibilities, or banishment to some area of no value or importance. Termination is the extreme measure and used only rarely as the action is primarily symbolic; though in a FearCulture the ScapeGoat usually does get sacked.

Resulting Context: Some critical managers may be temporarily mollified since action has been taken. Depending on the popularity of or respect for the individual chosen for sacrifice, teammates may be angry, fearful, or grateful. It will be immediately necessary to apply CultOfPersonality, GuruDoesAll, PeaceMaker, or DoorMat to complete the illusion of correction. May be used in conjunction with ContainmentBuilding. All too frequently, this is used prior to, or along with, CargoCult, an anti-pattern.

Rationale: Failure has many causes in any environment. Unfortunately, too often it is necessary to concentrate the sins of all those involved into the persona of a single individual, as though this person, once corrected, will bear away all the ills that have befallen the project. It is primarily a ritual for the mollification of external concerns, and occasionally does remove a particularly troublesome individual; however, its usual application is the punishment of a symbol in place of the rectification of more fundamental organizational problems.

AUTHOR: DonOlson 95/10/16

Warning: the appointee might follow "StickToYourGuns". Be ready, with lots of negative performance reviews - if any.

Or if you are in a jurisdiction where employment-at-will applies, just sack him. Ensure that the corporate grapevine gets wind of why.


Thanks to AlistairCockburn and JamesClover? for their observations and suggestions.
I'm not sure this is always an anti-pattern. It suggests that an innocent party is getting chosen as a scapegoat. If that's truly the case, then the anti-ness holds. But when a project is off track in a way that points back to individual culpability, then the use of this pattern can be an effective CorrectiveAction.

-- DaveSmith

The term scapegoat always refers to someone who's innocent - see the bottom of the page for the source of the term. It's a projection of the sins of the tribe onto one being (a goat, or whatever). If the person really is the single point of failure (I suspect this is generally rare, well-run organizations can identify these people before projects fail and you need to assign blame), then they aren't a scapegoat - they're a problem that's being solved. -- ChrisMellon?
Agreed! The pattern changes according to the spirit in which it is applied. Perhaps a related pattern is called for.

-- DonOlson

See CulpableGoat
One alias we use informally for ScapeGoat is LightenTheTroika.
I think the problem is with 'public' assessment of blame. I'm for "praise in public, punish in private", and in my experience, searching for who's at "fault" gets in the way of solving the problem. If there's really a person who made a mistake or a exercised poor judgement, it's usually clear.

That said, I also think it's important that when someone really screws up, other people are made aware of what happened. If nothing else, it's important to give the rest of the team the chance to learn from someone else's mistake.
I can't remember the name of the King who appointed a new cabinet when he was crowned - to the house of lords he added the royal cabbage garden such that whenever something seemed to be going wrong he could turn to the mob and tell them truthfully that several members of the house of lords had been beheaded... -- mab

It is possible to make a successful career out of being a scapegoat.

The value of a scapegoat is to have someone to blame and fire without damaging the organization. Then about half the time, the organizational problems having been highlighted will be cleaned up. If you don't mind the down side then you can get paid quite a lot to get frequently fired and save organizations that are in trouble. I have been a professional scapegoat for at least a decade. Another name for this pattern might be BlackSheep?.

Unlike the pattern described above, my scapegoatedness usually results in termination and the problem sometimes gets solved rather than just covered over. Usually, somebody puts me in a position for which I am not competent and I fail. I usually get hired into this position because a person who is not competent at hiring needs to throw a body at a problem in order to try to solve it. I then screw up so badly that people in higher management see the problem and take substantial action to fix it. I am the one blamed for it. Blaming me saves the organizational structure of the company which would otherwise could be seriously damaged. Often the problem is fixed. I get terminated and I am on my way to my next job, and I get to claim that because of my actions the project was turned around and became a success, which is true. This then impresses the next incompetent hiring manager who needs to throw a body at a problem. I'm not sure how I got into this career but my point is: you can actually make a successful career out of being a scapegoat. I just wish I could reduce the downtime between jobs however.

I believe the trick is to make a secret deal. You be the scapegoat and in return either you get to keep your job, perhaps shuffled to a different department, or are given a favorable reference by the blamer to help get to your next Blaim Train trip. I haven't done it myself, but have heard about it from others.
I think most people don't like to become a scapegoat, especially when this doesn't imply more money but rather losing a situation. So, I think the ScapeGoat becomes an anti-pattern when the project hangs, the organization is looking for a scapegoat, and people start to protect themselves rather then work for the project. Doing nothing is a better protection than doing something useful because it is always easier for someone to invent some obscure parts to a good action if they are really looking for a scapegoat. The consequence of the scapegoat syndrome would be a frozen project, all participants looking for excuses rather than working to it (it might worth to consider this situation as a distinct anti-pattern).
See also ThreeEnvelopes
Based on the description contained it seems the change of name from SacrificialLamb to ScapeGoat was not carried forth into the commentary.

Compare for example the following metaphors: Sending off a goat carrying the tribe's sins was an ancient ritual, giving us the name scapegoat. The essence is the same as sacrificing a lamb. Both metaphors work fine.

It's from Leviticus 16:

scapegoat, of course, is translational gloss to disguise what is really going on. The Hebrew is "Azazel", the spirit of the wilderness. We see here the polytheism of the early OT: one goat goes to Jehovah and one to Azazel so as to propitiate (make peace with) both elohim (Gods).

Understanding the commentary of this story shows the importance of distinguishing between the SacrificialLamb (sacrificed to obtain forgiveness for sins) and the ScapeGoat (banished to carry away sins). Thus there may be something to be gained by not treating these terms as synonyms in the organizational pattern language.


One of the best bosses I ever had retired ("Mr. Fred" pseudonym). After he left people blamed all kinds of shit on him; things outside of his scope of work even. At first my immediate coworkers and I would defend him. After a while we just looked at each other with a knowing expression because the level of BS was humorous. The blamers were pitiful corporate clowns. Correcting fools changed nothing. It became a running internal joke. "The coffee tastes bitter this morning. Bad Mr. Fred! The toilets backed up. Bad Mr. Fred!".


CategoryConsulting

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