Why Excuses Matter

There are several definitions for “excuse” the noun and “excuse” the verb. They include, from Google Dictionary:


  • “attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); seek to defend or justify.
  • release (someone) from a duty or requirement.


  • a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense.

From my childhood, probably a teacher, “An excuse is a reason for failure with a lie attached.”

In our current world, I think my personal recollection is closer to right.

Take the Afghanistan fiasco

There are any number of excuses (noun) put forward to defend or justify the result.

  • “We didn’t know it would be so quick,”
  • ‘We have negotiated a resolution that will make it all okay.”
  • “We had to do it despite the possible cost.”
  • “The people who are now trapped should have known better and acted sooner,.”
  • “It is a fast changing and difficult tactical environment.”

All of them are a reason for failure with a misdirection to exculpate the decision makers.

The advantage of an excuse

Excuses make some people feel better.

It could be the people who are not involved may have empathy for the decision  makers who are. The “I doubt I could have done better,” group. Most of the time, they are sympathetic but are ignoring that there is information they don’t have, or  have assigned good intent to the decision makers.

No doubt, the people who made the failing decisions, prefer to have their failure waived.

The disadvantage of an excuse

Excuses seem to mean there is nothing here.

  1. If the excuses are good enough or numerous enough, there is a tendency to learn nothing. Once people accept the outcome as fate, there is nothing to learn that could be applied in future. These people lose twice. One, the cost of the failure, and two, the absence of education that might have helped solve similar situations in future.
  2. The failure can be overlooked and nothing further need be done. “release (someone) from a duty or requirement.” This is the insidious one. People get in the habit of forgiving themselves for failure. If failure is met with a new mission – to do what was intended to be done in the first place and overcome the obstacles the failure created, there would be fewer failures,
  3. There are many decision makers who have never had to carry out one of their plans. Their inexperience should be noted so they make no more decisions.

If any lawyer presented a superficially planned or poorly organized case, or produced a defective contract or will, should they be excused? I doubt it. That’s why they have errors and omissions insurance. People expect more.

If a surgeon or doctor fails, What happens.

Consider this case: A person has a serious bone cancer in their leg, and amputation is necessary. After surgery, the doctor appears in the patient’s room and says, “I have some bad news and some good news”

“The bad news is we amputated the wrong leg.”

“The good news is it turns out there was nothing wrong with the other one.”

I sense a lawsuit. Likely a large one. The lawyer in the first example could comment.

Who makes mistakes and continuously offers excuses.

There are kinds of decision makers who do it.

Politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and some staff operators in business, or other organizations. They get in the habit because they treat decisions as something theoretical or academic. More like a grad school seminar than real world with real consequences. You’ll notice that tactics and the logistics too implement don’t make it to the seminar. The “let’s discuss what we know, find an answer, and then go for a latte.” crowd.

“You can fail many times, but you’re not a failure until you begin to blame somebody else.” John Burroughs.

The failure in thinking is that perfect plans don’t matter unless they can be executed. I wonder if something without methods to implement can even be called a plan. Even well considered plans have a flaw outlined by military theorist Helmut von Maltke in the early 1800s.  “No plan survives first contact with the main body of the enemy force.”

Amateurs assume circumstances will co-operate with them. Only people who have done it know that seldom happens.

People who operate at the doing level, have other approaches.

  1. They understand uncertainty. To accommodate future action, plans include the ability to learn as they proceed. Scouts and other intelligence continually update knowledge. Diversions mislead the enemy or a competitor.
  2. They plan in depth. They know the first approach likely won’t work and so have plans B, C, D and probably K or more. They now the key elements and they know the risks. They know that luck favours the best-prepared. No detail is too small.
  3. They know the resources needed and know that crimping their supplies and personnel is a far bigger risk than it seems to the politicians or other supervisors. It is like a bank lending money to a business. Most can lend 80% or 90% of the need without a problem, but you don’t get 80% of the results with 80% of the money. Sometime  you get 0%.
  4. They accept responsibility for outcomes.

Not all who try succeed

The advantage for the doers is they learn something. You will seldom hear an excuse other than maybe, “I had not anticipated that objection.” People who do and accept responsibility for outcomes learn faster than those who treat everything as something theoretical or academic.

Battlefields and living on commissions are very Darwinian environments. Every action has observable results in real time. Not all are positive.

The process that works

The doers pay a cost when they are wrong. There should be a cost for the decision makers and instigators. Failing that they will make weak decisions in future too.

Their excuse that “The plan was executed poorly.’  Should be unacceptable without strong evidence derived from their original plan including how the operation should proceed.

An example. My high school was small. We had trouble getting 10 players for the senior basketball team. You need 10 to practice scrimmage. Our tenth was a nice guy with some skills, but not enough really. I recall a game we were winning by about 100 to 10 and so it seemed safe to put him in the game. I grabbed a rebound and made the outlet pass to him. The ball hit him in the chest and bounced out of bounds. At the next opportunity, I got pulled from the game and while I pointed out the pass had been perfect. The coach replied, “It was not a perfect pass. You should have known he couldn’t catch it.”

That’s why the poorly executed plan excuse should not be acceptable. They should have known of the possibility and made provision for it.

“When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” Dr. Robert Anthony

The takeaway

Making people accountable for their decisions is the easiest way to improve decisions making.

Every action requires an after-action report. Not just those doing the acting, but the decision makers too.

When you believe you can excuse failure, you don’t try as hard.

“Strategy is system of expedients” von Maltke. What is expedient is seldom what achieves the result you want.

“Nemo resideo” “no one left behind is an ancient idea in warfare. It does not permit an expedient excuse. UNTIL NOW?

Learn from mistakes, the first time.

I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com 

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