After Hours optimize

10 excuses your boss doesn't want to hear

Ducking responsibility or shifting blame when a project goes wrong is unprofessional -- and it won't win you any points with your boss either. Justin James explains some ways to circumvent the need for excuse making.

There are lots of reasons why a project might not be going well or may even fail. When your boss wants to know why, there is a world of difference between offering an excuse and providing a legitimate reason. In truth, most excuses only make your manager more upset and put the blame on you. Here are 10 common excuses that employees give their managers -- and how you can turn them from weak excuses into a way of getting your supervisor to help you resolve the problems before your project is jeopardized.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: I didn't understand the assignment

Not every boss has great communication skills. And yes, having a manager who is not good at explaining what needs to be done makes life difficult. At the same time, using your boss' inability to explain things as an excuse for not doing them just does not fly. If an assignment does not make sense, it's your responsibility to find out what really has to happen. And if you find yourself in this situation more than once, it is a sign that you need to be extra careful when working with this particular person to get things fully understood.

2: The deadline was impossible

We all know this situation: A manager hands you an assignment with a deadline attached to it. You tell the manager that the deadline can't be met and you're told, "I don't care; make it happen." When the deadline is missed, you say, "But I told you the deadline was impossible!" and the boss is still angry. The disconnect here is that simply saying that the deadline is not possible is not good enough. As soon as the boss tells you to do it and you passively accept the ridiculous deadline, you make it your responsibility to meet it.

Your best defense is to negotiate a better deadline, and to do that, you need a project plan. The fact is, you always should be able to paint a picture of what a project will entail with some broad strokes anyway, and it is fairly easy to assign some rough estimates of the time to make each step happen. When you show your supervisor that even the most optimistic rough draft of a plan that omits a million minor details shows that it will take three months and they are demanding three weeks, guess what? It is now your manager's responsibility to deal with the deadline issue. You have turned an opponent into an ally, and no sane boss can hold you accountable for the bad deadline anymore.

3: A valuable resource was not available

A good part of a manager's job is to ensure that the team has adequate resources in the form of time, money, and equipment. If you are missing a critical resource, your manager needs to know now -- not when the project is late or has failed -- so that he or she can fix the problem immediately. When you tell your boss ahead of time, it's not an excuse -- it's asking for help to solve a problem. When you tell your boss after it's too late, it becomes an excuse and the failure is on you.

4: The requirements shifted

We all know that requirements get changed constantly. All too often, projects undergo the "gold plating" process long after deadlines and success conditions are determined. That being said, it is really bad form to use this as an excuse for failure. It's up to you to nip these changes in the bud as they come up. With each new requirement, you need to show how it will affect the possibility of meeting deadlines and the defined success conditions and either move the goalposts as the requirements change or don't allow the change. If you allow new requirements to be added without changing deadlines, you have effectively made it your responsibility to meet the new targets.

5: I have personal issues

We all have personal issues that come up from time to time. But if your personal issues are affecting your projects' success, you need to either deal with them or get some help with your work. If things have gotten to the point where your boss is asking you, "What is going on here?" it's too late. Explaining your non-work issues at this point is just going to make your boss even more upset. But if you explain that you are having some troubles as soon as you see they are affecting your work, your boss will be able to make the needed adjustments. Most supervisors would rather shift resources or expectations than try to force someone with an outside issue to be 100 percent.

6: I don't have enough time

If you do not have the time to do something, no amount of money, motivation, or resources can make it happen. If there is too much on your plate, you need to get rid of some of it or let your manager know you are overwhelmed. If you don't get any relief, it's your manager's problem, not yours if deadlines can't be met. But like so many of the other situations listed here, it is your responsibility to make it clear that there is a problem as soon as you can, so that adjustments can be made.

7: I don't know what went wrong

Some projects just fall into a rut and never get out. When you're doing the project post-mortem, there is no single thing anyone can point to and say, "This is what messed the project up." All the same, when a project is off the rails, everyone is usually aware of it, even if they don't know why. This kind of situation can be embarrassing. After all, how can you know that the project is blowing up but not know why? Usually, it's a case of "death by 1,000 paper cuts." The project lead had a bad illness and lost a week of time, the servers were down for a day due to hardware failure, the QA person had a death in the family, and so on. All of these reasonable issues can add up to a critical amount of lost work. All too often, we think that if you just keep pushing, maybe the mystery problems will go away and the project will get back on track. But it never actually works out this way. If a project is going south, you have to let people know, even if you don't know exactly why, so they can adjust expectations.

8: We ran into blockages

Workplaces are filled with people who have different, sometimes contradictory, goals. For example, you might need the QA team to test your application but another team's project has priority, so your application does not get tested until long after your deadline is missed. These kinds of work blockages happen all the time. If you can't get the situation sorted out yourself, determine how much delay you will suffer and what your options are and present them to your manager. Armed with that information, your manager will be able to make a decision from there or possibly get priorities straightened out.

9: The only copy of the work got destroyed

If your work is stored on a computer, you have no reason in the world to have only one copy of it. Not only should you be making regular backups, but they should be on different devices in different locations. Back up local files to the network server or work on the network and allow the IT department to handle things. If you think your boss will give you a free pass because the only copy of a critical file was on your laptop, which no longer works after you dropped it, you are dead wrong. In reality, using the "no backups" excuse will have your boss wondering whether you can be trusted with any more projects at all. Back up your work, and you will never have to tell your boss that the dead thumb drive has your only copy of the project.

10: The dog ate my homework

Sometimes, inexplicable events come up that keep you from getting things done. These things happen. Does your boss want to know that your project is late or won't be done satisfactorily because of these kinds of random issues? Of course not. But sometimes, there simply is nothing that can be done about it, especially when it comes up at the last possible moment. Just roll with the punches on this one.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

65 comments
reisen55
reisen55

We had one of those in our IT department. He was a nut-case, totally clueless and finally when stress got to him, he stayed out of the office for 3 months, came in early one morning, formatted his system (with all of our evaluations on it too), and cleaned out his office. True story.

abustamam
abustamam

Too true! Your boss does not want to hear any excuses, period! Your boss wants results, not excuses! In this competitive job market, your boss can and will find another person who is more competent than you should you mess up. Which only means, DONT MESS UP! Give your excuses a black eye and do what you need to do to get your job done! http://malaynetworker.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/give-your-excuses-a-black-eye/

a-walton
a-walton

LOL! From excuse #2 - "and no sane boss can hold you accountable for the bad deadline anymore". How many of us have sane bosses?

erh7771
erh7771

For instance "...don?t allow the change..." from number 4... Come on dude, if your not the PM and you're dealing with a boss who doesn't do impact or LOE analysis (which would've taking care most of this list) how is anyone supposed to expect them to cede authority to a programmer? TIA

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

For instance I can count on one hand the number of projects where the requirements didn't shift and no one thought to plan some extra time for this to happen.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

You're right, the manager refused to accept this when I tried it. It seems that the manager thought a lack of electricity throughout the building for a week was just whining.

robchamberlin
robchamberlin

If you have control or can input at the planning stages of a project, most project managers try to insert a 20% buffer of time, money, and people into the project they will be responsible for delivering. At the implementation stage, be aggressive, don't share the extra 20% with anyone else. Your pert or nassi-sniderman charts should reflect the aggressive time line. If you are the implementer, and have no say on planning, you need to quickly find the weaknesses and flaws in the plan, document them, and pass them up the chain of command. If the plan is so flawed, it cannot be done in budget and on time, you are doomed from the start. Project planning is still an art, not a science. Of course, you can always do the Tom Sawyer ploy, and sell another manager on what a plumb project you are managing, and let him/her take it away from you. Office politics - don't leave home without it.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

1: I didn?t understand the assignment Let?s just say that an overwhelming vast majority of people in healthcare do NOT speak I.T. worth a damn, and vice versa. I run into misunderstandings on a regular basis. The key is constant communication and exacting definition of needs and requirements. Especially when your boss comes from a nurse-manager background. I haven?t noticed much of a difference when it comes to any other business with non-techie professionals interacting with I.T. types. 2: The deadline was impossible If you can show precisely, and realistically, why that deadline is impossible, and your manager refuses to budge on it, that?s one of those times you need to go over his or her head to his or her boss. It?s a risk, and you can lose your job over it, but you could do that with a failed deadline too. 3: A valuable resource was not available A good reason to involve your manager in the project planning. 4: The requirements shifted Project creep sucks. You have to be meticulous in noting each new requirement, adjusting the project timeline accordingly, and then communicating the revised completion date. 5: I have personal issues Someone earlier noted that they program personal Murphy Factor days into the end of their project, and figure 3 to 3/5 productive days per week. A good idea. 6: I don?t have enough time This is a little too much like a repeat of #2. 7: I don?t know what went wrong 3 words: Root Cause Analysis 8: We ran into blockages Blockages = Murphy Factor, see #5. 9: The only copy of the work got destroyed You should always save major projects and works as part of your disaster preparedness process, which means multiple copies in multiple locations. Make sure you mark them for version control purposes. If you don?t understand records management 10: The dog ate my homework The unexpected = Murphy Factor, see #5, again.

BdeJong
BdeJong

This all sounds like I really need to do the work they give me!? I was looking for the excusses to stay away from so i can give the excusses they do accept an can still play online poker all day ;-P Seriously, you really need to make it a point to employees that they should communicate delays and issues as they arrive and not in hindsight when the remains of a project lay at your feet.

franksn
franksn

One of the most important things that you forgot, is to document everything in writing, with a copy, signed by your boss or whoever is in charge of your project. If you don't, it's only your word as to what happened! And we all know what a "he said, she said" scenario will get you. NOTHING! The second most important thing that you can do is a DAILY BACK UP on CD or DVD. You need the facts and can present them when needed. I hope this helps. Frank Nienburg, Computer Tech and Consultant (Retired) 22 years in the IT field, both as worker and boss.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

where you say its the bosses responsibility once we've told them there is an issue. Great, now when in their head after they do nothing or undo a positive action does your reason for a failure become an excuse for them. It's about that time they might end up being held responsible for it, and that is the real problem. You delegate authority not responsibility. If your people are failing then you as a manager are. Why are they resorting to excuses. Are they crap? Was there a reason for failure they dare not express? When they have given reasons are they being treated as excuses to be suitable scapegoat candidates. All of the above excuses should be put on the unacceptable list on day one. All reasons for delays should be documented along with the remedial action if any. That way you can in future build in contingency, take general remedial steps or at least register it as a risk. The main reason for excuses for failed projects is people are so busy presenting them as successes the real issues are denied. That's a top down attitude an excuse culture is simply an alternate view of a blame one. What happens for instance if your manager is a shoot the messenger type? Lots of tens, lots and lots. Which excuse you give is irrelevant, the fact that you feel you have to give one is not.

Niall Baird
Niall Baird

Focusing on excuses reveals that you are working in a "blame" culture, and I don't care who you are, but if you work in a culture where there is a 'guilty party', its human nature to want to protect yourself. A much better idea is to foster a 'no blame' culture, where you investigate the root cause of an issue (lateness of project, failure of software etc etc), then EVERYONE decides on the appropriate methods of making sure that this doesn't occur again. Watch the amount of excuses drop when you start doing this!

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

My last boss, surprising and luckily, wasn't too incompitent. The top 10 never got mentioned much. On the other hand he quite often asked for things to be done that just couldn't be done - mostly because the department budget was next too nothing. So he couldn't supply anything. And of course like any boss, they give a rediculous deadline without consulting to see how long it should take without any issues or people having other problems.

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

how about > Win Updates ate my system! IT used to come in and manually apply the specific win crapdates lost about 4 days to downtime because IT decided to start shoving out automated win crapdates, without testing and without researching the implications of what can happen when the logged on user is not a domain admin. and is using a server based OS for a work station

draqos
draqos

Is to cover his ass (this may not be 100% valid when he owns the business). So basically, if you dont have somebody else to point at, you're doomed, no matter your excuses or reasons. So always try to get at least a complete idiot to join your project team As parenthesis, a lot of the projects follow this phases: 1 - Enthusiasm 2 - Disillusionment 3 - Panic 4 - Search for the Guilty 5 - Punishment of the ones who were the most active 6 - Praise and Glory for the Nonparticipants

adipdutt
adipdutt

My Boss is my customer,only difference he is paying for my products in advance and regularly.Customer demands the highest Performance(service)/price ratio.IF your boss is techie some of the justification he may understand, if he is more of the administrative type normally he gets a second opinion from somewhere.So it depends on your Boss's background,so the knowledge of the bio of your boss and his method of working is an asset of how and when you want to present the problems. 1) Before a project begins first estimate the pitfalls,impracticability but also put in the positive points first. 2) Never contradict the market head, he is bringing in money, he has have both the ears of your boss, and you may have 1/2 of the weaker one if you are lucky. 3) If you start the project get all the information of your competitor's similar product.If your project is unique your boss have an idea of uncertainties. 4)Bring problems to your boss but with multiple solution/suggestion from your side. As suggested by Justin bring them well ahead of time. 5)Real time problems put forward to your boss is useless, he has his own problems. Your best security is your overall knowledge of the product you are ordered to develop-technical,economic,resource requirement. As individual mistakes are remembered and successes shared by the accountant of your company,like in the ancient times if you are bringer of good news well--good,if it is bad the king cuts of your head or will start planning to do so.

lagray53
lagray53

The whole premise is rather ridiculous, but in an odd way it proves the need for a Project Manager. As Stanford University says: PROJECT MANAGEMENT; HOW THE REAL WORKS GET DONE. Well said...!

jplace
jplace

I tend to use a tactic that's guaranteed to confuse my boss: the truth. I once managed to bring the entire call centre (120 workstations) to a halt by accidently killing power to the server. When the boss asked what happend I apologised and told him I had flicked the wrong breaker on the UPS. He was so surprised that I wasn't trying to squirm out of anything he just said something like "Oh, right then." and went back to his office. Lies or excuses will always come back to bite you.

marcnash
marcnash

All of these items have one thing in common - managing expectation. One advantage I have had as a consultant has been working directly for clients. If we considered our boss, our client, then we would learn to manage expectations more.

jmbrasfield
jmbrasfield

"When you show your supervisor that even the most optimistic rough draft of a plan that omits a million minor details shows that it will take three months and they are demanding three weeks, guess what? It is now your manager?s responsibility to deal with the deadline issue." Really, and what universe do you live in?

Anjana Jain
Anjana Jain

Very close to real professional life scenario. Take from here is 1)make sure you are on top of your planning 2)If situation is not within your control, immediately raise an alarm 3)do not take only problem to your superior, go with options for resolution

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

Yes, I agree, these are frequent excuses, and should be avoided. The key is honest, correct and timely information to the boss about issues that can delay or derail the project. It is not easy to find the right balance, though. If you cry every time you see little chance for delay, your boss will ignore your 20th cry. You have to evaluate the situation carefully before you start crying.

sdxt72
sdxt72

It will be interesting to know.. Any suggestions?

coolmark82
coolmark82

Random events that prevent people from completing anything normally happens to me. For example, I am trying to install Windows XP on a PIII machine, but an error always comes up saying that it can't copy info from install disk.

umair.wasim
umair.wasim

You mean don't come up with excuses........better to resign...........Lolz :D

dragosb
dragosb

Some more: You do not know how things are going here. How you asked is not my way of working. I'm not documenting my work. Nobody read documentation! I do not know when I'll finish my task. Why rushing? Decide on what I have to do! You never told me you wanted that. It's someone else fault. You forgot the times when you started your first job.

trabey
trabey

Justin, instead of naive advice for worker ants about how to more subservient, how about advice for managers who don't want to hear any excuse, real or bogus, even if they themselves are the real root cause of the train wreck?

jkameleon
jkameleon

who cares about some lame excuses nobody wants to hear. But the list of excuses bosses DO want to hear... now that would be an interesting reading.

gharlow
gharlow

Many years ago, while downing some fast food, a small car pulled up to the tune-up station next door. The car was making a horrible noise and was very old and beat up. The young girl driving the car spent the next 10 minutes crying and carrying on to the mechanic to have him change the oil. He kept telling her the oil change would do NO good and that the car needed substantial repairs, but she kept insisting he change the oil. What I realized is that she had $30 on her and that she NEEDED the repair to be an oil change, not a replacement engine etc. I see this ALL the time in project estimation by managers who need a project and have a set budget to get it done. The result is an unrealistic time frame and problems! In these cases, everyone loses!

john.provencher
john.provencher

I think, for many people, it is hard to differentiate between a reason and an excuse. If something is late, I think that most managers will accept a valid reason, albeit not with a smile and handshake. Danger is that when something is late, or maybe not even started, any reason will sound like an excuse. We all know that excuses are like a******s. Everyone has one and they all have a sh***y outlook.

kdawg3484
kdawg3484

...it's scary. At least there's comfort in knowing that the nonparticipants will be the beneficiaries of Step 5 when they're managing the next project. And around and around it goes...

Justin James
Justin James

I am a HUGE fan of this strategy as well. The best part about telling the truth in these situations is that it shows that you know what went wrong and you will try to make sure that it does not happen again. That's a lot better to management then a vague, "gee, not really sure" which indicates that it could repeat itself at any moment. J.Ja

nico
nico

That's a good one. If you did that twice the same day, you wouldn't get away with the truth; perhaps not even with an excuse. Excuses occur when reasons are unknown.

simon.rowe
simon.rowe

Sometimes it takes the heat out of a problem to stand up and say 'it was me, I know what went wrong, and we're taking steps to prevent this happening again' Might depend whether the company culture is always looking for someone to blame, though !

Justin James
Justin James

... is one in which bosses do not act like petty tyrants. Look, if you reasonably show your manager why a project can't work, and show them what can and cannot be done in the given timeline, and they won't work with you as an ally to renegotiate the spec or the deadline... well, to be honest, this manager is selling you up the creek. You are being set up for failure. If this has happened to you so often that you accept it as a matter of doing business, that's really unfortunate. I've worked with some managers who did this, and some that didn't, and the funny thing is, our customers were always happy with the latter variety because we all worked as a team to get the work done within realistic parameters, instead of producing an untested or buggy product that sort of met the spec but was within the bad deadline, and done in a way that future work was impossible. J.Ja

Sepius
Sepius

I could do it in half the time with Linux :)

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

If you can find a way to economically capture the spilled oil and return it to the production process, you'll be able to retire and play with super computers for the rest of your life. Remember this, BP is more interested in stopping the leak, and regaining full control of the well to put it back into production than anyone else in the world. That leak is hemorrhaging their profits.

Shaunny Boy
Shaunny Boy

...where anything goes without justice apparently.

nico
nico

Blame it on the government, who is their partner in crime. That'll work.

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

This had to be an open-ended project because the details of what had to be done and how to do it were not known beforehand. Also one cannot plan for effects due to the weather. Give them some slack. they are working hard on it.

Shaunny Boy
Shaunny Boy

... perhaps you should know better?! Typically, those who have "worker ants" as you so put it underneath them, one would expect that them to have the skill to lead well, or the guile to evade blame, which is something that can not be easily taught. Of course, if an employee has caught his boss dosing, and shown them up in many an occasion, perhaps they employee could really have their boss's job, and the puck land firming with the manager!

MikeGall
MikeGall

Corporate policy should be that in order to fire someone the manager needs to fire him/herself :-) That way you know you got rid of the person responsible, and perhaps the person responsible + a poor manager.

Gonzalo34
Gonzalo34

Yes, or even worse, some customers (my case) are only sure of the budget and general expectations. Following your example, they usually want "their car back", not even knowing what do 'oil' or 'engine' words mean.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Deadlines are not between you and your boss. It's between you and the shareholders of the company you are working for, because they are directly tied to profits. Missing deadlines by moderate amount of time (say couple of days or a week) is essential to your long term survival in the programming field. If you meet all your deadlines, your boss will think your workload isn't high enough. He'll keep increasing it and shortening your deadlines until you start missing them. If you miss deadline, don't even try to make excuses. Just say something like: "I'm working about as fast as I can here, if you don't like it, find somebody faster." Of course, there is a small chance that your employer will actually go and find somebody else. This usually happens at companies with well established "burn 'em out and dump" procedures. Losing such job is therefore a good riddance. In the final consequence, it's less bad to be jobless in lousy economy, than jobless and burned out in lousy economy.

erh7771
erh7771

...level of effort estimates or impact assessment gathering? The "pull from ***" project dates that done 9 outtah 10 times in organizations relay more of an immaturity in base management (not just IT) than an workers inability to convince their manager to do simple first steps no? TIA

eeandersen
eeandersen

I think the real reason that the oil spill is not plugged more quickly is that BP is only considering solutions that preserve the well. There must be millions maybe billions invested in creating the "hole". Too much to lose too easily; let's trade the Gulf of Mexico for it. Maybe no one will notice....

pvitt
pvitt

Just do what President Obama does - blame Bush!

ProfT
ProfT

I have seen a position remain while the problem was eliminated. But the issue everyone had, position holder remained even though he/she was fully aware of the underhanded stuff going on.

Shaunny Boy
Shaunny Boy

You are slight wrong too! I agree, you should firmly stand confident in your skills if you're the man for the job. For your boss to justify finding someone else over you if you hit your targets consistently would be near impossible. However, if you're in a position where you are missing targets, and your work load is superhuman, challenging your boss into finding someone who may cope better doing your job is setting a dangerous precedence. What happened to "maybe we should introduce someone new" approach, and listing a set of reason, including on the job training session x times a week? Negotiating is key, as your boss may not realise what you as an employee may need. You may need to remind him of what you have done for the company, what other companies may offer to someone with your skill set, and to top it all of, if you have done serious time and projects for said company, knowing the insides and outs, with aces up your sleeve (ie rival company interests), push for a salary increase. Of course, if you boss is an [fill with appropriate profanity], and doesn't realise what type of asset you are, then going by your suggestion may then be a necessary step.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

but the original article was about a manager. This is a different situation.

neilb
neilb

BP are pinning most of the hopes of success on the two relief wells which, obviously, allows the extraction of the remaining oil. Anything that spills into the Gulf prior to the relief well would be a waste from that perspective. Given, also, that BP (alone!) has committed to cleaning up the Gulf then the obvious "best" scenario is to plug the original well at the earliest opportunity and drill the relief wells. That's less money they have to pay out to your lawyers and chancers as well as the people that need and deserve it. As for cleaning up the Gulf, check out why BP aren't permitted to use centrifuges to clean the water. To save you the trouble, it's because US regulations insist that the water put back into the Gulf following centrifugal separation is clean and not - as would be much more sensible - cleanER. BP are still responsible for stopping the gusher and paying for cleaning up the mess, but they don't make the decisions as to how to deal with the cleanup, that's been pre-empted by the US Coastguard. What they know about oil spillage cleanup on this scale and what resources they have, I have no idea. No problems in sucking up oil-contaminated water in the Mexican bit of the Gulf, by the way, they can work out the obvious.

rciafardone@gmail.com
rciafardone@gmail.com

After the first couple of weeks i started to think that the problem was that BP was trying to close the spill preserving the well. But now is clear that the economic damage of not closing it far surppss the cost of opening it again later. They must be trully incapable of shutting it down one way or the other. Otherwise the BP executives in charge cant even make basic mathematical operations.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... he won't "reward" a job well done with increased workload. But... such bosses are very few and far between.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Customers are far worse than the bosses, so... there really isn't much difference.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

It applies equally to wage slaves and supervisors/managers equally.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... and his article doesn't say it's for managers.