Excuses aren’t reasons

The dog ate my homework



Article Author Sarah Willcox

Sarah Willcox is the Founder of Fairisle Consulting

We often encounter impatience from clients. If things aren’t moving quickly enough we hear, ‘things just never change, whatever we do’ or ‘they’re just not committed to change’. Whoever ‘they’ are. Another one is: ‘this should all have been resolved by now!’

We’re used to it and we don’t take it personally, because we know change can be frustrating and even painful. If making meaningful changes was easy, it would have been done by now.

So we dig down a little further, and we usually find that some things have actually changed. The easy things. Because they’re easy. But harder things get kicked down the road and this is where the real problems start to emerge, the obstacles to progress.


The obstacles tend to be one of, or a combination of, these:

  • The problem is too complex
  • There’s not enough time, money or people
  • The organisation’s culture resists change

Sometimes these factors are dismissed as excuses. This is dangerous, because there’s a big difference between a reason and an excuse.

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Reasons and excuses

A reason for slow progress is a factor that is hard to handle, takes time to resolve, but is resolvable. An excuse is something that is presented as unresolvable, something that nobody can do anything about. The classic example of an excuse is ‘I didn’t hand in my homework because the dog ate it’. A bit silly maybe, but it’s a good example of an excuse presented as a reason, when it’s obviously not.

Let’s return to our list of ‘excuses’ and work out if they’re really excuses or reasons.

The problem is too complex

Organisations, by their very nature, are complex. That’s because people are complex and people make up organisations. The best way to deal with complexity is to try and break the problem down into its component parts. There are various techniques you can use, and spending time analysing each moving part of the problem can really help you to understand it. It doesn’t make the issue less complex, but it does mean you’ll understand it better. We did this recently with a client who was struggling with their expenses process. We helped them to methodically examine each step in the process. It soon emerged that the problem lay in the manager approval part of expenses. Once we recognised this, and identified some solutions, a number of the other problems resolved themselves.

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There’s not enough time, money or people

We’ve yet to work with a client who says ‘we’ve got loads of time to solve this, here’s a big team of people to help and, by the way, money’s no object.’ Just doesn’t happen. The way through is to simply accept the conditions and find ways to make the most of the resources that are available. Agile working really helps here because it contains powerful ways to work out priorities and plan the work of change, alongside ‘business as usual’.

The organisation’s culture resists change

This is a big one which comes up all the time, and sometimes consultants will advise you to ‘drive change through’ i.e. force it on people. This hardly ever works. Strange as it may seem, the key is to work with the most resistant people, rather than the least resistant. They usually have good reasons for their resistance. Find out what they are and you’ll not only be able to bring them on side, but also strengthen your solution with their input. We have a specific method to do this. If you’re interested in learning more, let us know.

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Excuses aren’t reasons

Excuses get used when people are looking for the easy way out. Reasons are worth looking into properly. Part of our work with clients is to help them appreciate the fact that when something is hard to achieve it tells you that it matters. Put another way, the fact it’s hard tells you it’s worth the investment to resolve it.

Oh, and apologies that this article is a bit later than usual. The dog ate it.

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