Tech Life There are no healthy excuses

The Leaper

On my short list of professional competitive differentiators, I would list my inbox strategy. I have a zero tolerance policy for unread mails. Zero. Any mail, however big or small, which lands in my inbox, is instantly read. There is an industrial strength set of mail filters that move mailing list noise out of the way, and yes, that means I ignore a good portion of my incoming mail, but most mail addressed directly to me is consistently and expediently read.

There are other inbox strategies I employ to figure out when and how I respond, too, but I admit the combination of these strategies is not foolproof. I read mails and never respond, despite having good intentions to do so. I passively aggressively ignore mails I just don’t want to answer, and sometimes I just forget to respond. I have a carefully constructed excuse when I’m called on these mail transgressions. It’s a standard preface in all emails and phone conversations where there needs to be an acknowledgement of neglect and it’s…

“Sorry, I’ve been swamped…”

This isn’t a lie; it’s an excuse.

Now, there is a bit of pride in that I have a life where I’m scrambling. Yes, I’m proud that I’m busy. I’m a happy member of the busy club because I’ve been to the bored club meetings and, well, they’re boring.

The pride vanishes in the guilt that there was neglect. I forget to respond, I fucked up in some manner, and here I am with my standard disclaimer: “swamped”. The guilt is the emotion that lingers. I just checked my Sent box of 20,483 messages and found the word swamped 712 times… in the last year. How unoriginal and pathetic.

And then I remember the worst part. It’s pathetic because when I use the excuse that I’m swamped, I’m telling you absolutely nothing.

On Excuses

I had a boss — we’ll call him The Leaper for reasons you’ll understand in a moment. The Leaper was a bright guy, a worthy mentor, politically savvy, and generally a person who would look out for his team. The Leaper had a lot of responsibility as VP, so his management strategy was to randomly sample his teams looking for — you guessed it — places to leap.

The Leaper’s skill lay in his ability to detect bullshit. Being bright, a former engineer, and familiar with the problem space, he could tell when he was being spun. He knew when he was hearing less than the truth. Generally he was understanding when he sampled ambiguity, but there was one sure way to get him to leap: answer a question with an excuse.

The Leaper attacked excuses as a personal affront. He wouldn’t let anyone leave the room until it was painfully clear that the excuse card had been played, that it was unacceptable, and that the proper steps were taken to make sure it would never happen again.

For first time excusers, it was a painful perspective adjustment. See, when The Leaper asked a question where the answerer wasn’t comfortable answering, they did what I did when I ignored a mail — they made an excuse. It’s a knee-jerk reaction with seemingly little consequence, but that’s not what The Leaper saw. He saw the lame diffusion of blame and a weak defense.

An excuse is an abdication of responsibility. There are no healthy excuses. I’ll explain.

On Delivery

“But Rands, it’s really Antonio’s fault! He owns the deliverable, he missed the date, it’s his fuck-up.” Calm down. You’re arguing about the wrong part of the excuse.

An excuse has two parts: the content and the delivery. Your Antonio content may be spot on, but the reason The Leaper is going to leap on you is your delivery. It sounds like you’re diffusing, it sounds like you’re spinning. You’re not delivering the facts, you’re delivering emotion and weak opinion. The best data in the world is useless if your means of conveyance is suspect.

Yes, with confidence, you can deliver weak content and not trigger a leap, but this only delays the inevitable. Your chutzpah may disguise the content, but since your content is weak and you don’t actually know what you’re talking about, you’re eventually going to take the reputation hit… twice. First, when the crap content is discovered and then again when everyone realizes you were pitching your facts on false confidence.

Well done there.

The irony is thick. In order to avoid looking like you didn’t know what you were talking about, you opened your mouth and only added to the confusion. If you told The Leaper, “I don’t know, but I will know tomorrow,” he’d be cool.

Life in a big or small company is an information game where you are judged by the amount and accuracy of your information. This game becomes more complex as you leave the individual contributor role for management, but even as an individual, you are expected to be aware of your surroundings and able to describe them to others.

I know that feeling when someone in authority spends 30 seconds looking at something you’ve been working on for six months and immediately finds a painfully obvious flaw. The mental conversation starts with, “There’s no way he could…” and it finishes with “Holy crap, how could I miss that?” It’s disorientating, and when the question is asked of you: “Why didn’t you think of that?” I know where the excuse comes from. It’s alarmed spin, it’s poor marketing, it’s the uncomfortable admission of guilt.

So, what are you going to do? Clearly, there’s a reputation hit here, so what’s the right move?

My advice is to take a small amount of time to say something real. Honest, clear, and brief. Sure, these are executives and they might be pissed, but the last thing to do in that scenario is to add fuel to the fire by actively demonstrating your discomfort.

There are executives who like to see you squirm, who revel in the discovery of flaws. While they might be right, this does not give them the right to be cruel. I’m talking about that deliberate dead silence after the flaw has been exposed, and everyone sees it now and everyone is wondering, “How could we miss that?” In that moment, someone is expected to say something. This is your opportunity to say something of value.

An Opportunity to Communicate

Working for The Leaper for years, I can now sense the moment before I’m about to employ an excuse. I can feel the chain of events that are about to occur as I construct my weak redirection of responsibility. I hear what I’m about to say in my head — It’s not my fault — and then I stop.

I want you think of the very last conversation you had and I want you to think of one thing that you did not say. Maybe you were in a hurry and you blew off someone’s question. Maybe you were in a great conversation. Perhaps you were talking to your Dad. What is the topic you should have brought up? What is the small thing you could have said to make that conversation more valuable?

This is everything that crosses my mind after I stop with the excuse. I think about all the throw-away phrases I use where I could have actually said something valuable. I once wrote, “Every time you say blah blah blah, a creative writing teacher dies,” and I meant it. Each time you open your mouth, you have an opportunity to build something. That’s the perspective you want during the uncomfortable dead silence, not the victim-based emotion of excuse.

I’m in a hurry, but being in a hurry isn’t an excuse for not taking a small amount of time to say something real.

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26 Responses

  1. Interesting post. Having sent several “excuse” emails of late I have a first hand perception of how it can muddy the waters leading to eventual communcation catastophy. I still carry around a quote from you on professional misery due to one party failing to talk. An “excuse” email is as bad as not talking.

  2. Nice post.

    The Leaper reminds me a bit of a mentor of mine. Whenever I’d say something that was half-examined, some trite bit of collective wisdom that I picked up and re-transmitted without filtering…not even trying to pull anything over on him, not necessarily even about something related to the primary topic at hand…he’d immediately question me on it. Ask something incisive, with a steady gaze leveled at me. Make me realize that my content was weak, make me analyze my claims, justify and defend them. Effectively say, “I know you’re not adding value here. I know you’re just phoning this in.” Not out of ill will, not to embarrass or deride me; just to make me realize. I learned pretty quickly to think about the words that came out of my mouth when talking to him, to ensure they were genuine and defensible.

  3. Steve 15 years ago

    The Leaper sounds like the kind of person I’d love to work for. Unfortunately there is a much greater supply of bosses who just want a plausible excuse to use on their boss.

  4. Got your blog from ‘the top 200’ list, and really this is a great post… if you could refrain from talking like a fourth grader who is cussing without his parents around.

    My tolerance for poor language is probably equal to your tolerance for excuses.

    Would you talk to a perspective customer in this way?

  5. Aaron Davies 15 years ago

    I don’t know what Rands would do, but how I would talk to a perspective customer would depend on what perspective he was trying to buy. How I would talk to a prospective customer is another matter entirely.

  6. @Aaron Davies – nicely done!

    @CK – “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones!”

    Don’t nail someone’s ass to the wall like that when your “poor language” is poor itself. And don’t make “excuses” here for why you messed up,… please.

  7. I agree completely with the assertion that an excuse is an abdication of responsibility. But what I find is how powerful and successful the excuse is in large corporate IT shops. Steve, a few comments above, captures another frustrating trend where one level of management is looking for a good story to pitch to the next level to further diffuse the blame across more functional areas within IT. The excuse taken to the extreme is what I call being “surprised and confused”. I’ve written more detail about engineers being “surprised and confused” here:

  8. Oh my… I have a typo. I must be the biggest idiot around and should have myself ridiculed endlessly.

    Thanks guys, you’ve really set me straight.

    Just proving my point.

  9. Miles Archer 15 years ago

    Decent analysis, but not your strongest post. I’m really not sure what you’re saying other than – when you screw up, admit it.

    Personally, I’d forgive your swamped remark the first time, but if you’re consistently needing to use it to me, I’d be pissed off. Perhaps you need to find a way to be 10% less swamped.

  10. Fodder for another article – what happened to all your different mentors – good and bad – over the years? Who always seem to land on their feet in a ever changing industry, and who fell on their face? For example, what ever happened to The Leaper?

  11. Dave Anderson 15 years ago

    Another fine post that, as often, shines a light on something you know when you read it to be quite tangible but couldn’t have put into words yourself.

    I try to avoid excuses and once had ‘discourage a blame culture’ as a specific objective. That was achieved by simply accepting the blame myself for anything that went wrong. That included when it was obvious it couldn’t have been anything to do with me or my team. Pretty much disarmed all the higher ups on the war path.

    The important thing was to get on with identifying the problem and fixing it so it wouldn’t happen again. Helping to deliver the fixes usually absolved me of the blame in the end, genuine or not.

  12. @CK

    I don’t see what parts of this post qualify as ‘a fourth grader cussing without his parents around’. Is it using the idiom ‘fucked up’ once and paraphrasing thoughts and excuses using ‘fuck’ and ‘crap’ on two occasions? These are words people actually use and think. Sometimes you don’t just make a mistake: sometimes you fuck up. Sometimes you don’t just use an excuse; you use a crap excuse. I’m not sure a professional writer would put it differently, when this is the language of our times.

  13. Joel Irby 15 years ago

    An incorrect choice of words isn’t a typo; it’s a mistake, like using “it’s” when “its” would’ve been correct. Back on topic, I’ve worked for managers & team leads who’d call “bullshit” whenever I’d try to talk my way out of a blunder. It seemed harsh at the time, but I realize now it’s been a blessing.

    “Extremism in the defense of accuracy is novice.” (apologies to Barry Goldwater)

  14. @CK:

    Would you talk to a perspective customer in this way?

    Probably not, but that is not his audience. I can think of nothing less relevant than your personal tolerance level for so called “poor language”. You should really be ashamed of posting such a silly remark on such a great blog.

    You have an excellent blog here Rands. Your posts are consistently interesting and insightful. Thank you.

  15. Exactly. If you’re responsible, then own it. If you’re not, then don’t try to answer; send them to the person who is. And as a Marine friend likes to say, the only acceptable answers to a question are “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir”, and “No excuse, Sir.”

  16. I’m not at all sure what you’re trying to communicate with this post.

    Don’t make an excuse for somebody else? (Even if it isn’t an excuse but a factual explanation?)

    Think before you utter an excuse? (OK, but what do you utter instead?)

    It’s really hard to avoid obvious mistakes on projects in which you’re immersed? (What’s the fix for that?)

  17. Where you mis-wrote “orientating”, the word you sought was “orienting”.

  18. Love the blog. A friend pointed me to the Nerd Handbook and I had a holy shit moment.

    I am consistently impressed with how well your ideas and concepts expressed on these hallowed pages line up with how I see the world. I have even started referencing some of your work when trying to reduce stupidity in the workplace. This article is certainly going to help.

    Years ago I started using “I don’t have excuses only reasons and contingency plans I have not yet implemented”. This simple shift in thought was all I needed to acknowledge and accept responsibility then easily show a way forward to eliminate a re-occurrence. Regardless of this I generally end up working for managers that are just looking for a usable excuse.

    I have also come to realise that if it’s not written down it doesn’t exist. Clear reasons and achievable proposed actions can still be twisted into a blame conspiracy by management and staff unless it is provided in a format that can’t be misinterpreted or forgotten.

    Keep up the good work influencing workplace understanding of nerd/geek culture.


  19. The Leaper sounds like a great boss. Intense, but great. Won’t let you get away with excuses, but will help and support you even if you don’t know or if you’ve made a mistake and take responsibility for fixing it.

    This is all too rare. The most common response to “I don’t know, but I will know tomorrow” seems to be “You shouldn’t have known that already.” Sometimes, they really are just out to get ya.

    @CK: you have fallen victim to a phenomenon that is so common that it has a name: Muphry’s Law. (Yes, Muphry. Look it up.) So, don’t feel too bad about it. Well, you should feel a little bad, but not too bad. 🙂

  20. Until recently I held a self limiting belief that I was uber talented, and the world refused to recognise it. I felt hard done by. The problem with that mindset is, that yes whilst I had some results and a few things I could point to as being “better than average”. There was nothing other people pointed to and went “woah”.

    It was pretty easy to get by coasting, but sometimes coasting just won’t cut it.

    In a good business someone will catch you out and challenge you. Long may it continue. It’s a tough transition to actually question yourself, find yourself wanting and then change. So worth it though.

  21. I dont know if you actually read these comments…. but you are spot on. Thank you for writing so well… i absolutely will buy your book; and I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  22. Crasty 15 years ago

    I really like your blog and i respect your work. I’ll be a frequent visitor.

  23. Dude,

    I own the book. I read the book. I loved the book. Now don’t waste my time by reprinting the book here or you could at least post a warning that the following is old material please use what valuable freetime you have elsewhere for the day.

    Best Regards,


  24. deadale 15 years ago


    i wonder why you can’t make a short response to your mail yet you can write lengthy blog such as this post…

    quiet interesting post you got there..

    I too find it hard to response on my mail, it’s not that i don’t wanna make a response but it just seem tiring and sometimes too when i already had in mind to reply a mail after a while i forget about it and when i remember i already lost the mood to write a mail..

    I think that isn’t right…

  25. Bryce 15 years ago

    Looks like the fucking “crybaby with entitlement issues” brigade is out again lately.

    I love it that people come onto a guy’s blog that is all about helping people to be better workers and managers (and people, too) and post negative comments. Just great. Thanks internet!

  26. Dave Broadwin 15 years ago

    Another cool post. Being a mere lawyer, I don’t have a huge bag of tricks but one that I have learned is when someone finds something I forgot/missed/overlooked I immediately acknowledge their insight and suggest that my oversight might be even worse than they suggested. Here is a made up example: Leaper says, “You forgot the usury provision in the note.” Lawyer response, “You’re right, usury could be a big issue in New York I think I should focus on this more, do you?” Leaper, “nah, just make sure the provision is in there.” The usury clause goes in and the topic is never thought of again.