3 Key steps to CYA

When I make a mistake, I own up to it. One time, I had the brilliant idea to wash my wife’s new car with a coarse scrub brush, which of course scratched the finish nicely. I messed up and got it fixed.

What I hate more than anything, though, is being blamed for a mistake that isn’t my fault. Often, this happens when someone else made a mistake and either remembers a series of agreements you made with them differently than you do or they are outright lying about a set of previously acknowledged facts. Either way, now they are saying it was all your idea to use the scrub brush and they had nothing to do with it.

When this happens, prevention is the key. How do you cover your ass (CYA) so you don’t own someone else’s mistakes?

I’ll completely nerd out on you by asking you to consider a scene early in The Empire Strikes Back as a working scenario. The Imperial Navy thinks the Rebel Alliance is hiding out on Hoth and sends a fleet there. The flagship of the fleet is The Executor commanded by Admiral Ozzel and his second in command is Captain Piett. Darth Vader oversees them both. A mistake is made. The fleet comes out of hyperspace too close to Hoth, alerting the Rebels that the Empire has discovered their hideout and they respond by putting up a powerful shield.

In one of the best movie lines ever, Vader remarks that Ozzel, “is as clumsy as he is stupid” for making such a mistake and immediately crushes Ozzels larynx as punishment. Good news, Piett, your immediate superior has been killed for being an idiot and you got promoted. Try not to tick off the big boss, though.

Ozzel takes responsibility for the mistake, but here’s how it could have played out:

Ozzel: “Honestly, Lord Vader, Piett did this all on his own. He’s been having trouble following orders lately.”

Piett: “Uh, what are you talking about, Ozzel? You told me to sneak up on them and now we can’t bombard the planet from orbit.”

So who gets the Force Choke? It’s Ozzel’s word against Piett’s and ignoring for a second that Vader could use his powers to compel them both to tell the truth, there’s no other way to know which one is right. Odds are, though, the person lying about the facts (Ozzel) is probably a bigger suck up to the big boss, so how likely is he to be the one to get punished?

Consider alternative to the scenario:

Ozzel: “Honestly, Lord Vader, Piett did this all on his own. He’s been having trouble following orders lately.”

Piett: “Uh, what are you talking about, Ozzel? I have an email right here dated 3 hours ago where you asked me to sneak up on them. Lord Vader, I’ve already forwarded it to you.”

Now Piett has CYA’d and can breathe easy (literally).

What’s the difference between the two made-up versions of the events? In the second one, the decision was recorded, it was stored, and it was easily retrievable so it could be used as evidence. Those are the 3 key steps to CYA.

1. Record It

Some people can be trusted more than others, so don’t pull this trick all the time or else you’ll just annoy everyone. But, if an important or controversial decision is being made in a non-recordable medium like a conversation, it’s a good idea to follow that up with confirmation of the decision in a recordable one, like email. For example:

From: Captian Piett
To: Admiral Ozzel
CC: Darth Vader;General Veers
Subject: Hyperspace plan for Hoth

Admiral,

I just wanted to confirm our recent hallway conversation that you would like me to have the fleet exit hyperspace as close to the Hoth system as possible. No doubt the ground troops led by General Veers will win a swift victory and put the Rebels in their rightful place. Please reply with confirmation at your earliest convenience.

—Piett


This email gets to the point, asks for confirmation, and throws in some team-building words of encouragement. It doesn’t read like it was sent exclusively for preemptive CYA even though it has that effect. Depending upon the circumstance, you may or may not want to CC a higher superior so that it is well communicated that some decision has been made. In this example, even if Ozzel never responds, it was at least recorded what Piett interpreted the decision to be., which might be enough to get Piett off the hook if there is trouble to be had. If Ozzel confirms as requested, it is pretty clear who made the decision and what it was, removing all doubt who’s neck is on the line.

2. Store It

Of course, a record is only good to CYA if you have it around later to use. In some companies, there are limits to how much you can store on an email server. For that reason, explore storing your email archive on your local system and manage your own back ups. That way, the storage of things like this is completely under your control, although it then completely becomes your responsibility too.

3. Be Able to Retrieve It

Recording a decision and saving it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find it when the big boss comes looking for someone to cease breathing. Of the 3 key steps, this one is probably the most important. Good archival organization systems only go so far, though. Even better is a well used desktop search tool. I happen to like Google Desktop Search, but there are other products that do the same thing. That way, even if you can’t remember where you filed something you can still find it. Plus, you’ll find a lot of decisions get made via email so the first two steps happen automatically and all you need help with is the retrieval.

Final Thought

This doesn’t mean that every conversation you have needs to have an email follow up. Nobody will get mad at you for picking up the wrong burritos during a lunch time food run, but on big decisions or with people who have shown themselves untrustworthy in the past, learn to CYA so you only have to take the blame for mistakes you actually made.

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