When you coach people or do any kind of mentoring, you get to see some of the most well-crafted excuses ever delivered in the history of humanity. I normally have between five and ten coaching clients that I’m working with at any given time and at my job, because I have a fairly senior role, part of my responsibility is to mentor one junior member of staff all the time (which I enjoy doing by the way).
I’m a bit weird when I spot someone making an excuse, I never call them out on it straight away, I usually string them along and see how far they’re willing to spin the story. The simple reality is most people never think the logic of their excuse through very deeply and when you agree with them but quietly press them on the logic of their excuse the conversation can get very interesting.
With most people, after a minute or two, they realise that I’m kind of messing with them or there is a moment of clarity where they understand that they’re just making excuses for failing to get something done.
For me, that’s an important inflexion point. When someone comes to the realisation that they are letting themselves and other people down with their actions (or inaction) most people have an awakening. They start seeing patterns in their behaviour, sometimes going back years.
It can be quite overwhelming to watch it play out.
But that’s not all there is to it.
It’s not enough to accept that you’ve let yourself down and that you have a history of making excuses to gloss over it, you have to understand that something needs to change.
When I ran the software as a service business, we were on an incredibly tight schedule to deliver the code for our new version of the product. We’d budgeted for about 20 man-years of development across eight months to complete the software and we had clients waiting to use it on construction and engineering projects around the world worth billions.
As we got to the six-month mark of development I came to the sickening understanding that we were way behind.
I couldn’t work out what happened. We were using Scrum and Agile development methodologies, we had a program manager, a product manager, a team lead and a test lead all helping to run the project, but we were still not able to accurately predict when we would complete the product.
I took a day off, turned my phone off and stayed in bed for a whole day.
Back then, I never took time off work – I loved my job, it was like snorting crack and chasing it with a triple espresso – it gave me a buzz and was totally addictive. It didn’t matter because I needed to step back, decompress and work out what the hell had happened.
The next morning I got up early, went into the office and I sat in on the daily scrum session where I watched one of the developers say that he couldn’t meet his delivery because another developer had failed to build an underlying class. Then we moved on to someone else and he was going to not deliver his features in this spring because the Test Manager changed testing harnesses during the last sprint and didn’t finish on time. Finally, a user interface person simply hadn’t given himself enough time to complete his tasks this sprint because he was busy with studying for an exam and took some study time off work.
I cleared the room except for my management group and asked one simple question that I already knew the answer to, “What’s wrong?”
The answers came thick and fast, “The timeframe was too ambitious”, “We need more people”, “Our scoping is wrong”, “We have too much tech debt”, etc…
The problem had even permeated to my direct reports. It was like an awakening for me, I knew exactly what was wrong.
I interrupted the cavalcade of stupidity with a short, sharp statement, “The problem is, everyone is making excuses and getting away with it.”
Silence fell over the room. I think people were expecting me to say something else and make this failure ok, but I just let my statement hang in the air.
Finally, my Product Manager spoke and she said, “But everyone is flat out and they’re doing their best.”
I deadpanned, “Oh well, that’s alright then. The UI isn’t finished because someone has an exam and we couldn’t build a critical import function because we changed testing platforms in the middle of a development sprint. All good then, carry on.”
She got the point and sort of slid down in her chair a little.
From that moment onward, we had a “No Excuses Policy” across the entire business. If you said you could do something and you committed to yourself and everyone else that you’d do it, you did it and you did it on time.
Immediately the culture changed. People started taking accountability for their own work and holding others accountable for theirs. If someone miscalculated their efforts, other people dove in to help them finish. Some developers took on less glamorous tasks because they knew that eventually not doing those jobs would come back to bite them all.
The team finished the project on time and under the man hours budget because people stopped making excuses.
Excuses are a justification and an acceptance of something less than what you had originally set out to achieve. Excuses hold you back, not just because you let yourself off the hook for failing but because they are habit forming and over time their impact accumulates causing a cascading effect. You end up wallowing in a quagmire of failure.
So how do you stop that from happening?
Admittedly, it’s not easy. Getting the balance right is tough – there’s a fine line between driving yourself too hard and letting yourself off too easily.
I don’t really believe in accountability partners, in fact, I think as a concept it’s a steaming pile of absolute garbage. The vast majority of the time I’ve seen people become accountability partners they just end up bitching to each other and justifying each other’s excuses. Most accountability partners are “failure enablers” for fluffpreneurs.
I think the idea of “chunking” works well. Define something you want to achieve, break it down into the smallest possible achievable components and then start knocking those off one by one in the most logical order. Keeping these things on a task list will help you too.
I also think having a coach or mentor can work for some people. I believe if you’re going to do this, you should pay for it. Lots of people have “mentors” they don’t pay and really, you have no skin in the game, so you’re basically hoping to borrow time from that person so they can help you when it suits them. People who pay for my coaching get to set the time they want to meet with me (within reason) and I keep them honest while providing some perspective.
The most important thing is to have some self-awareness. You need to realise if you’re hurting yourself by making excuses for why you’re not getting stuff done, then it’s important to do something about it. Whether that’s chunking, getting a coach or whatever you need to do, you need to do something because the problem will only get worse if left untreated.