Breaking Through Excuses
Most managers are good at explaining why something can't be done. Don't be one of them.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer

(Business 2.0) – Having espoused my views on the importance of human capital in this column for the past two years, I've grown accustomed to reader responses that go something like this: "Hey, Jeff. Loved what you wrote about treating employees better to capture their discretionary effort. Promoting learning by building a culture that tolerates mistakes? Great idea! Trouble is, we can't do it. Too much day-to-day stuff that takes precedence. Wish we had the time, money, and other resources to change the way we do things, but you know how it goes."

It's as though a requirement for entering the ranks of corporate management today is the ability to generate excuses for why it's impossible to do things everyone agrees are important. David Russo, chief people officer at Peopleclick and the former head of human resources at SAS Institute, told me that when he gives speeches about how to win employee loyalty, it rarely takes more than 20 minutes for someone to raise a hand and explain why whatever Russo is advocating can't be done. Excuses are rampant in the public sector too. Rudy Crew, head of Florida's Miami-Dade County school system and former chancellor of New York City's schools, says one of his New York principals claimed that among the reasons his school underperformed were that kids from a nearby housing project couldn't be expected to study and that some parents came to PTA meetings wearing slippers.

If you allow excuses to impede change, you don't merely fail to improve. You also risk losing out to those who see challenges as obstacles to be surmounted. After all, customers are happy to switch to competitors that fix problems instead of complaining about them. Consider the University of California at San Francisco's Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center, where in 1997 director Laura Esserman consolidated breast cancer services at one location, replacing a system that bounced women between various offices. Almost no industry is hamstrung by excuses more than health care, but Esserman got past them: Patient visits have increased from 175 a month in 1997 to 1,300 in 2003.

So how do you liberate an organization from its own excuses? For the past three years, I have invited Crew to speak to my Stanford MBA class about how he achieved change at both New York and Florida schools. His first rule: Do not accept preemptory surrender--giving up before you start. Crew fired, virtually on the spot, the principal who made excuses for why some children couldn't learn. It was going to be hard enough to fix the problems confronting the schools and their students, Crew noted, but it would be impossible if those in leadership roles were rationalizing the status quo.

The second thing Crew does is to articulate the benefits of moving beyond what I'll call "reasonable" excuses to find "unreasonable" solutions. It's what corporate leaders call a vision. In his school systems, Crew talks about getting every child reading at grade level and prepared for the world of work. He shares that vision with everyone he relies on to achieve it--administrators, teachers, parents, and students--frequently to standing ovations.

Crew's final piece of advice to leaders is to demolish excuses by example. When he saw a fourth-grader in New York struggling with homework, Crew spent time with the boy, saying, "Stay at this. You'll get it. Just don't give up." Imagine what happens when teachers witness that. It's the same thing that happens when corporate leaders roll up their sleeves to achieve a goal: Programmers at SAS who see CEO Jim Goodnight writing code stop complaining about impossible deadlines.

As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change. Excuses, therefore, drag organizations toward an insane, unprofitable end. As a leader, it's your job to counteract them. Or don't, and you and your team can trade excuses all day about why you're unemployed.