Excuses, Reasons and Responsibility

Seth Godin recently wrote an excellent blog called Looking for the right excuse.

He makes the point that we know a project is going wrong when we start mentally looking for an excuse and he goes on to say

Amazingly, we often look for the excuse before we even accept the project. We say to ourselves, “well, I can start this, and if it doesn’t work perfectly, I can point out it was the …”

Seth concludes that “the successful project is filled with people who are obsessed with avoiding excuses.”

Excuses are like Recriminations

In an earlier blog, I made a similar point: there is no room for regrets and recriminations when leading a project.  Recriminations are like excuses that you aim at someone else.

I went on to identify one of the things you need to do when things go wrong as “find the causes”.  Thinking about Seth’s blog this morning, led me to wonder…

What is the difference between “finding a reason” and “finding an excuse?”

It’s a tricky question, so I turned to my trusty Collins Concise.

An excuse is “an explanation offered in defence of some fault…”  It comes from the Latin “ex causa” meaning accusation.

A reason is ”a justification for something”.  I would have preferred “a causal agent” but you can only choose your dictionary, and not the definitions within it!  My Oxford refers to cause, so that’s why I keep two dictionaries by my desk! Reason comes from the old French “reisun” and that from the Latin “reri”, to think, via “ratio”, reckoning.

My conclusion
Excuses are defensive accusations levelled at some person or event, to take the blame for a failing.  Reasons are a rational explanation of cause.


There is something missing

For me, these definitions and the distinction they create leave something missing.  I think the real difference is in responsibility.

With an excuse, we are looking to shed responsibility.  With a reason, we are looking to find a way to respond (and hence accept responsibility).

The “so what?”

When something goes wrong, what is your first instinct?  Is it to find and excuse or search for a reason?


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