The No Excuses Culture

Getting ready for our next semester’s class, I asked my Teaching Assistant why I hadn’t seen the posters for our new class around campus.  Hearing the litany of excuses that followed –“It was raining.” (The posters go inside the building.)  “We still have time.” (We had agreed they were to go up a week ago) — I had a strong sense of déjà vu. When I took the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy, excuses seemed to be our main product.  So we created The No Excuses Culture.

No Excuses as a Core Value  
In addition to customer discovery, creating end user demand, and product strategy, Marketing also serves as a service organization to sales.  It drove me crazy when we failed to deliver a project for sales on time or we missed a media deadline. And I quickly realized that whenever there was a failure to deliver on time, everyone in my Marketing department had an excuse. Making excuses instead of producing timely deliverables meant we were failing as an organization. We weren’t supporting the mission of the company (generate revenue and profit), and the lack of honesty diminished our credibility, and our integrity.

I realized that this was a broken part of our culture, but couldn’t figure out why. Then one day it hit me.  When deadlines slipped, there were no consequences – no consequences to my direct reports when they failed to deliver on time, no consequences to the people who reported to them – and no consequences to our vendors.

And with no consequences our entire department acted as if schedules and commitments didn’t matter. I heard a constant refrain of, “The sales channel brochure was late because the vendor got busy so they couldn’t meet the original deadline.” Or “the January ad had to be moved into February because my graphic artist was sick, but I didn’t tell you because I assumed it was OK.” Or, “We’re going to slip our product launch because the team thought they couldn’t get ready in time.” I had inherited a department with a culture that turned commitments into vague aspirations.  We had no accountability.

I realized that for us to build a high-performance marketing organization that drove the company, this had to change. I wanted a department that could be counted on to deliver. One day I put up a sign on my door that said, “No excuses accepted.” And I let everyone in the marketing department know what I meant was, “We were all going to be ‘accountable’.”

I didn’t mean “deliver or else.”

By accountable I meant, “We agreed on a delivery date, and between now and the delivery date, it’s OK if you ask for help because you’re stuck, or something happened outside of your control. But do not walk into my office the day something is due and give me an excuse. It will cost you your job.” That kind of accountable.

And, “Since I won’t accept those kind of excuses, you are no longer authorized to accept them from your staff or vendors either.  You need to tell your staff and vendors that it’s OK to ask for help if they are stuck.  But you also need to let everyone in your department know that from now on showing up with an excuse the day the project is due will cost them their job.”

The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was to build a culture of no surprises and collective problem solving.

I don’t want to make implementing this sound easy. Asking for help, and/or saying you were stuck created cognitive dissonance for many people. Even as we publicly applauded those who asked for help, some just couldn’t bring themselves to admit they needed help until the day the project was due.  Others went in the other direction and thought collective problem solving meant they could come into my office, and say they “had a problem” and think I was going to solve it for them without first trying to solve it themselves. As we worked hard on making “no excuses” part of our culture some couldn’t adapt. A few became ex-employees. But the rest felt empowered and responsible.

Everything is “priority one”
One other thing needed to be fixed before we could implement “no excuses.”  I realized that my groups inside of marketing had become dumping grounds for projects from both inside and outside of marketing – with everything being “priority one.”  There was no way for us to say, “We can’t take that project on.” And yet, simply accepting anything anyone wanted Marketing to provide was unsustainable.

We quickly put in a capacity/priority planning process. Each marketing group, (product marketing, marcom, trade shows, etc.) calculated their number of available man-hours and budget dollars. Then every week each department stack-ranked the priority of the projects on their plate and estimated the amount of time and budget for each. If someone inside of marketing wanted to add a new project, we needed to figure out which existing one(s) on the list we were going to defer or kill to accommodate it. If someone outside of marketing wanted to add a new project before we had the resources, we made them decide which of their current projects they wanted to defer/kill.  If we didn’t have the resources to support them, we helped them find resources outside the company. And finally, each of the projects we did accept had to align with the overall mission of the company and our department.

Over time, accountability, execution, honesty and integrity became the cornerstones of our communication with each other, other departments and vendors.

We became known as a high-performance organization as we delivered what said we would – on time and on budget.

Lesson Learned

  • No excuses for failures given, just facts and requests for help
  • No excuses for failures accepted, just facts, and offers to help
  • Relentless execution
  • Individual honesty and integrity

That was it. Four bullets. It defined our culture.

27 Responses

  1. Great! No Excuses!

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  2. No consequences is key in several aspects of life. Many times, on our own path.
    I think we all have lived thru this but, most importantly, we should realize how many times we just assume our “excuses and rationalization” is O.K. Like nothing happens when you fail

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  3. There is a famous old essay that illustrates this very issue. It was taught at the US Naval Academy 40 years ago when I was there:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Message_to_Garcia

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  4. Very much agree! Gaining honesty & integrity amongst your staff shouldn’t ever be underestimated.

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  5. Neat post. Seriously.

    /Jerry

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  6. Great post, thanks for sharing Steve.

    Love the 4 bullets, but they probably work best in a self-contained organizations. The “no excuses” culture is hard to build in large organizations with many cross-department dependencies, but everyone has to try and do exactly that.

    “no consequences” is a widespread problem in large organizations where nobody ever gets fired, while a culture of accountability is highly effective.

    Individual honesty and integrity FTW

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  7. Interesting strategy! I wonder what would happen if people (on an individual, personal level) refused to accept excuses from themselves as to why they didn’t reach their goals. Could be life-changing!

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  8. Great article, thank you!

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  9. I’m an old guy who spent more than 30 years at 5 companies doing government R&D, mostly on intelligence programs. (Retired from 2.) We never talked about no excuses. We just never did them It was a key culture in any good team. Those who whined or did excuses didn’t last long. [No excuses. Find a way to get it done.] Once spent 4 months @ Cape Kennedy/Canaveral re-planning the entire schedule system for Space Shuttle processing – 4 months of 100+ hour weeks. I got it done even when my colleague from Georgia said the hell w/it and went back to Georgia. When I finished, the product wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. I didn’t get an “attaboy” or a bonus or a raise when I returned to California. Did get a great new job assignment however. Unlike most government jobs, or PG&E, we weren’t rewarded for doing our job, no matter how difficult.

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  10. Hi, I completely disagree with this. You create a company culture afraid of trying when you apply this. It’s your own fault if the poster isn’t up in the rain. You as a leader should already know that the process is being delayed. Don’t you talk with your employees? I would never want to work with someone with this mindset, and I highly doubt you would too.

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    • To work as a team you must respect your compadres, but you don’t have to like them. If you make excuses you aren’t pulling your weight. Questioning is one thing. Excuses another. Over my years of R&D tiger teams, you never had to let an excuse person go, they quietly got the message from the team.

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    • I agree. And I think the problem may have started from the company’s mission — generate revenue and profit. It that’s a mission, sell drugs.

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  11. Very nice. You guys learned what raw recruits in the military learn from day one. Whether you’re a plebe/swab at one of the four U.S. Military Academies like I was, or at an enlisted boot camp, “no excuse, sir!” is the first thing to be drilled. Why? Because an excuse can get someone killed out in the field.

    So, for college-educated people to learn it well into their well-paid careers is funny, if it weren’t so sad. The problem in business – where I spent the last 40 years as a manager cum executive – is poor leadership and poorly trained managers. Execs don’t hold their managers accountable, and the fallout is continued all the way down to the bottom. Excuses, per se, are the symptom of a problem, whereas failure to keep commitments (staff) and failure to make others accountable (everyone) are the real problem. It’s the “if I ignore this, it’ll go away in time.” That’s right – if you ignore doing your job, your job will go away in time.

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    • “The problem in business […] is poor leadership and poorly trained managers. Execs don’t hold their managers accountable, and the fallout is continued all the way down to the bottom.”

      Execs also need to be accountable to those who report to them. In 30+ years in the world of work, I’ve lived through more than my share of executives announcing projects with real deadlines and without any input from those of us whose jobs were to actually make that happen.

      It’s a lot easier for everyone to be accountable when the product/project/deadline is a shared educated guess. Let the executive hear the hard truths in how to make that sausage, not just the glossed-over no-bad-news recipe in their reports’ Powerpoint presentations.

      It’s a lot easier for people to “find a way” when that way can involve money or staffing from elsewhere. Nobody tells the military to conduct a battle with 15% fewer pieces of ammunition because, in another theater of the war, the enemy sank a big ship. Yet that overreaction is presented all the time to those who committed to projects on the basis of staff/training/tools being available — and then find that a loss completely beyond their control imperils that commitment.

      I suspect people would be far more willing to live and die by accountability if they weren’t being kneecapped by their management in the process. Your boss told you there would be enough staff and money — and now there isn’t? He (or she) should be the one to petition his management either for the tools to make it happen or for relief.

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  12. Steve – I like/agree with the approach you detailed. One question: you make semi-vague references to time (quickly, over time), curious how long it took before the fixes were implemented and you arrived at the “end state” of goodness…weeks? months? years?

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  13. I really think that the last paragraph hit the deeper issues on the head. One of the reasons things tend not to “get done” is because managers & employees are suddenly overwhelmed with “Everything is important – Everything is Urgent”.

    Fixing this allows for the next steps of healing.

    Great post, Steve – as always 🙂

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  14. This is a great reminder that “no excuse culture” should be practiced on an individual level as well. It’s easy to make excuses when you are holding yourself accountable, but this post has reminded me that everyone (including yourself) needs to be held to the same standard. Great read.

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  15. Terrible advice IMO. Lazy managers threaten people with their jobs rather do the hard work of setting up onboarding programs, training and mentoring.

    Basically, “Lead by example”.

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  16. How did you handle the TAs?

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  17. How Steve Blank manages in practice: he makes demands he doesn’t understand and refuses to listen to the issues when they’re raised:

    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13846800

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  18. Reblogged this on Writer's Craft and commented:
    Read this great blog by Steve Blank on “The No Excuses Culture.”

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  19. This is despicable. Raising the stakes to 11 and everyone having to constantly worry what some lousy manager (that isn’t communicating *himself* with his reports, blaming them instead, itself an excuse) subjectively considers an “excuse”. What a recipe for 60-hour brogrammer monoculture. How many talented employees does this burn out early? How much domestic violence has this level of stress caused?

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  20. Interesting article and equally interesting comments. Obviously our personal reactions to the article (whether we agree, disagree, or are in-between) are shaped by our own experiences. Stu above raises valid points, which I definitely have experienced. Basically, these scenarios are akin to management asking staff to bake a cake, which normally takes 60 minutes of oven time, in 15 minutes. Oh, and the team has to share the oven with another team as whatever they are baking is equally important. The team literally is being asked to bend physics here and if they can’t deliver, they’re making excuses and failing to think creatively and problem-solve.

    I think it’s helpful to take a step back and think about why people make excuses. First, we’re naturally averse to admitting failure…it’s human nature. But beneath that is an underlying issue of trust. Chances are, something in our past happened to create this issue of trust. Maybe we were told we failed at something despite our best efforts not to. Or when we admitted failure, we faced some type of bad consequence or repercussion. Or, we saw that someone else failed and should have been held accountable, but was not.

    Undoing this deeply-rooted psychological state is not easy. I think it’s safe to assume that while Steve might have achieved some early wins just by resetting expectations, truly reshaping the culture likely required significant time, energy, and more personal involvement than what might be typical of an executive.

    It may be helpful to look at it more as creating a culture of “shared success.” Retired General Stanley McChrystal discusses a similar challenge in his book, “Team of Teams,” which I highly recommend. And obviously, the stakes for the general’s Joint Task Force were a lot higher than the consequences of missing a deadline for an ad or a slip in a product launch date.

    As others have mentioned, a big part of it comes back to priorities. A challenge in large corporations is that the typical hierarchical structure creates silos and inherently incentivizes certain behaviors, which might undermine shared success. Execs want to look good and succeed, and these execs are rewarded for “owning” things and executing well within their silos. This can create a disconnect between individual growth/success and the bigger picture (the company’s success).

    Does the company have a clear No. 1 priority? Ideally, all teams would be contributing to this priority first and work on other priorities only if no additional resources are needed for that No. 1 priority. For example, if a company has a product problem, how important is a new ad campaign or a new HR system? Instead of working on an ad campaign, perhaps Marketing should help the product teams conduct research and gain customer feedback that helps improve the product. And perhaps HR should focus on recruiting talent that can help improve the product.

    I’m not suggesting companies can’t do more than 1 thing at once; rather, departments should be marching to the beat of the same drum. This requires a lot of discipline, though, which does not always come easily.

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