No excuses culture

No excuses culture

Steve Blank is a silicon valley author, entrepreneur, university lecturer, and pioneer of the Lean Startup movement. I read an interesting blog article by Steve about creating a “No Excuses” culture and thought I would explore the concept further.

Let’s face it, we all get frustrated when Metrics (Key Performance Indicators) fall below the agreed standard, or Projects and Tasks are not completed on time. If you are the manager, how do you combat this problem?

I’ve written previously about the concept of radical transparency, and how using software dashboards to make everyone’s performance visible can help your people stay focused on what is important.

I’ve also written about the right way to use the red/yellow/green of the traffic light for color-coding performance on your dashboard. Most managers set the KPI performance thresholds incorrectly in my experience, and in the article, I share my road-tested guidelines.

Making performance visible is just the first step. Radical transparency by itself is not enough. Yes, software dashboards will help you manage your people more effectively, but they do not replace the need for good management practices. Dashboards don’t absolve the manager of their obligation to coach and support their people. I have a saying:

“Successful Business Execution is 20% getting clear about what needs to be done, and 80% following up to make sure it actually gets done”

I call it “weeding the garden”. If you are a manager or team leader, you only win when your team wins. You must run effective meetings with your people every week to discuss their performance. You need to coach and support your people to ensure they are achieving the required results and meeting their deadlines consistently. You also need to coach and support your people to ensure they are consistently demonstrating behaviors aligned with your Core Values.

That brings me to Steve Blank’s article. He wrote about a company he managed where there were no consequences for poor performance, so (understandably) the employees acted as if schedules and commitments didn’t matter. It was driving him crazy. To combat this he instituted “No Excuses” as a Core Value to fix the accountability problem.

He explained his “No Excuses” Core Value as follows: “I didn’t mean ‘deliver or else’. 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.’ The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was to build a culture of no surprises and collective problem-solving.”

How to create a no excuses culture.

For this “no excuses” policy to work, firstly, it requires that you set goals the right way so everyone knows what is expected of them and to get employee buy-in upfront (here are my tips for how to set SMART Goals).

Secondly, it requires that you don’t overwhelm people with too many demands. You can’t keep dumping more work on people and expect them to deliver. I often say to clients, “If everything is important, then nothing is”, and in a similar vein, “If you are not making any trade-offs then you don’t really have a strategy“.

There are lots of things you could do, but you can’t do everything. Strategy is about making choices. Strategy is about making trade-offs. The essence of strategy is choosing what you are NOT going to do. Business author Jim Collins said, “If you have more than 3 priorities, you don’t have any priorities.

Steve Blank echoed this sentiment in his article: “If someone 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.”

Thirdly, there are simple management disciplines that can have a profound impact. One of these disciplines is to create what I call “Task Rules”. The purpose of these rules is to provide clear expectations about the importance of task due dates. 

To overcome “the planning fallacy”, I recommend setting conservative due dates that factor in time for unforeseen delays and distractions. The task owner should feel safe to negotiate a mutually acceptable due date with their manager, and once this is agreed, be willing to be held firmly accountable for getting the task completed by the due date.

Here is my set of “Stephen’s Task Rules” I use to upgrade accountability and help create a high-performance team culture with my clients:

  • No surprises. No excuses
  • A task is a promise
  • Due dates are “commits” not “hopes”
  • Don’t give a date by which you “hope” to get the task done, “commit” to a realistic date that others can count on
  • Between now and the due date, it’s OK to ask for help if you get stuck, or renegotiate your commitment if something happens outside of your control
  • However, it is totally unacceptable to show up with an excuse on the due date with the task not done

For best results, involve your team members and craft your own unique set of Task Rules, so that everyone buys in and is willing to commit to them. Once finalized, post your Task Rules somewhere visible and refer to them during your team meetings so they become ingrained as part of your team culture.

In summary:

To create a high-performance, no excuses culture, you must start by implementing management best practices.

It’s not about setting goals, assigning work, and demanding results with no excuses.

It’s about prioritizing what is truly important (strategic), saying “NO” to everything else, setting SMART goals, making it safe for people to ask for help, and running effective meetings every week to discuss and coach performance.


Until next time…