Transcending Blame while Hopping Mountains Together

Another personal learning update, this time flavored around Complice and collaboration. I wasn’t expecting this when I set out to write the post, but what’s below ended up being very much a thematic continuation on the previous learning update post (which got a lot of positive response) so if you’re digging this post you may want to jump over to that one. It’s not a prerequisite though, so you’re also free to just keep reading.

I started out working on Complice nearly four years ago, in part because I didn’t want to have to get a job and work for someone else when I graduated from university. But I’ve since learned that there’s an extent to which it wasn’t just working for people but merely working with people long-term that I found aversive. One of my growth areas over the course of the past year or so has been developing a way-of-being in working relationships that is enjoyable and effective.

I wrote last week about changing my relationship to internal conflict, which involved defusing some propensity for being self-critical. Structurally connected with that is getting better at not experiencing or expressing blame towards others either. In last week’s post I talked about how I knew I was yelling at myself but had somehow totally dissociated from the fact that that meant that I was being yelled at.

I think that this illustrates that I have historically tended towards identifying with power-over roles as opposed to a power-under role (someone who is the opposite might even feel yelled at internally without recognizing that their own system is the source of the yelling).

A blame-based mindset, when encountering an issue it can’t immediately resolve, concludes “there is a problem”. An outwards blame-based mindset continues the sentence as “there is a problem, but it’s not me—things aren’t okay until someone else fixes their shit”. An inwards blame-based mindset (self-blame, shame, etc) continues the sentence as “there is a problem, and it’s me—I’m not okay.” As I’ve noted above, this structure can actually show up within a single mind, with one part of me identifying some other part as the problem and blaming it. But this is still an outwards motion.

Blame is a form of punishment (or threat of punishment). Like all coercive approaches, it attempts to influence behavior without regard for the complexities of the system it’s trying to motivate, by just squeezing some lifeline of the system until the system capitulates.

(Blame is a form of punishment when the blame itself represents a direct loss of some needed resource, which would typically be social status or positive regard. It is a *threat* of punishment when the blamee isn’t short on status or regard, in which case the blame would need to actually be leveraged to remove some other resource that the system needs.)

My recent learning around blame

Man, I really like theorizing. This was going to be a personal learning update!

And it is. Where I’m going with all of this is that since last November, Complice hasn’t just been a solo endeavor: I’ve been joined by my friend and meta-colleague Benjamin, who has been part of the Upstart Collaboratory here in Waterloo for the last 5 years as I have. So we’re simultaneously developing both Complice as a specific business as well as our working relationship more generally.

He and I have just now come to the end of the longest project we’ve worked on together (by an order of magnitude; over 150 hours each, compared to more like 15-20h each before) and I want to talk about a particular incident that represents a snapshot of our learning process. The project itself was overhauling the Complice landing page: Benjamin has written up a summary of the content-development process we went through here.

We started out thinking we would just think a little bit about personas and then rewrite the landing page copy, in 1-2 days. But on the first day, we figured that since the existing landing page had already been through plenty of iteration, trying to improve the copy from first principles would work best if we actually spent some time developing those principles, by contacting existing users about their stories, for instance. Again, more details on this in the other post.

A week or two into the persona & brand pillar development process, I found myself at one point feeling a bit daunted by the amount of work we were putting into it. I flopped down on our office couch (which is also my bed) and reflected to Benjamin,

“You know, I think that without you as part of the team, I would not have been able to do all of this copy-editing work. I think that part of that is because the feedback loops before finding out if it works is so long… like we’re spending dozens of hours on this, and maybe we’ll launch it, and the conversion rate won’t have even gone up.”

The tone that I was speaking with at that point was a bit overwhelmed, and defeated, and was on the edge of getting a bit blamey. Recall the structure I described above of external blame: there’s a problem (a lot of work with high uncertainty of success) and it’s not me (if I were on my own, I wouldn’t do this) and someone else needs to fix it. Not that I specified what needed fixing.

We talked for another few minutes, with Ben trying to probe into my motivations and me feeling even more muddled, and then we decided to go for a walk together, hoping that the physical movement and fresh air would help create psychological movement and fresh thoughts.

One thing that we realized on the walk was that when I had first started speaking—”…I think that without you as part of the team, I would not have been able to do all of this copy-editing work…”—I had been intending to express gratitude and excitement for the capacity that Benjamin’s presence was bringing to the Complice team. But then the fear crept in, and and the blame followed. We were both astonished at how much my original intent had become totally subverted by the dysfunctional fear/blame response.

That response could have very easily gotten in the way of us being able to actually think clearly about the situation and figure out how we wanted to relate to the relevant uncertainty. But by creatively disrupting it by going on the walk, we were able to uncover something quite exciting. Recognizing that the conversation was stuck and deciding together to cultivate a different experience was a conflict-de-escalating move. Rather than the fear/blame dynamic operating between us, we set it to the side and got back in alignment.

This act of prioritization—stepping away from the work we were doing to shift my mindset back into a collaborative space—was an interpersonal example of the commitment I described last week.

The results were profound. Not only did we get back in sync with each other and again feeling excited to be working together on this project, but we also developed a powerful frame for thinking about the uncertainty around the landing page.

During the walk, we were reflecting on what I’d said—”…and maybe we’ll launch it, and the conversion rate won’t have even gone up.” and I was now able to step out of this fear and note that I did actually feel really good about the process that we were engaged in to create the new landing page, and that even if the conversion rate didn’t go up, our prospects were still good.

I made the analogy of being on a mountainous terrain, with the goal of getting as much altitude as possible. Various local optimizations had allowed us to climb quite far up the hill of the original landing page, but that hill wasn’t actually very high. By doing more customer research, persona creation, and brand positioning development, we were creating a scaffold that would allow us to reach other mountains and scale them faster. So even if our first foray to a new mountain put us at the same altitude as before (ie even if when we first launched the new landing page, the conversion rate was the same as the previous version of the page) we would still be in a much better position than before.

a digitally created photo-like image of some mountains with some water in the front and a planet in the background

Well, it’s now a month later, and we’ve done a little A/B testing of the new page against the old, and… so far the results suggest that the conversion rate is actually about the same as the old page. But we were totally prepared for this, and thus unfazed. We have lots of ideas for further things to try and where to go next.

If, instead of going for the walk, we had just tried to ignore the fear that was coming up for me and go back to work, we might have been kind of blindsided by this event. The presence of the fear probably indicates important information; but in order to be able to clearly express it or effectively listen to it, we needed to get the blame out of the way.

Blame (internal or external) enacts a conflict state, which means that while it can work temporarily it’s ultimately a very wasteful and unstable way of motivating oneself or other people. The main project that Benjamin and I are engaged in isn’t actually Complice itself, but developing a non-coercive way of being in relationship with self and other, so if we encounter this sort of blame or judgment or whatever, then we excitedly put Complice aside temporarily and dive into the opportunity to upgrade our mindsets.

I think that the whole mountain metaphor, in addition to being a helpful way to think about landing page conversion rate optimization, is also relevant to the meta-level project of upgrading our mindsets. In the short-term we don’t squeeze out as much productivity per se, but in the long-term we develop substantially more trust in ourselves and each other.

This is why we consider Complice to be a two-person DDO (Deliberately Developmental Organization).


This principle of working consciously to transcend conflict is actually one of the core brand pillars that we came up with for Complice while overhauling the landing page. We called it alignment, and it’s particularly embodied in the act of setting a small number of goals and having them all in one list together. By making a single list of goals, people feel more alignment towards each of those goals, and they’re also more able to see the ways in which each goal interacts with each other goal. Sometimes they may be mutually beneficial; other times there may be tensions. Having those tensions be easier to see makes them easier to consciously work with, rather than getting stuck in stasis or in oscillation.

If that sounds attractive to you, Benjamin and I would love if you checked out the new Complice homepage and tried envisioning what the impact could be if you integrated such a system into your life.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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