Intent vs. Execution

Everyone screws up. There are too many people counting on us and too many things to do to assume that everything can go off without a hitch. Things are bound to fall apart, that’s just life.

Years ago, I started observing the reactions people had when they felt someone else had failed to deliver. I started listening to the words they used about how they felt. And, I created a hypothesis — I call it “intent versus execution”. It argues that people use one question to make their assessment: did the person intend to let me down or did the person mean well but just fail to execute?

If the failure is viewed as one of intent, the words used are those of attack and betrayal. The individual is described as a jerk, a backstabber or an egomaniac. The storyline is that of a Bond villain hiding out in a dark cave, engineering the person’s downfall. Occasionally, they are less evil mastermind and more self-centered climber, but in either case letting the other person down was no accident. The event results in a quick downward spiral — intentional acts cannot be forgiven or ignored. There are few relationships that survive a failure of intent.

A failure of execution is different. There is usually a soaking period while both the person and the situation is considered.

  • How big was the failure?
  • What other balls was the person juggling?
  • Did they give me a heads up?
  • Did they take responsibility?
  • Will they make it right?

Whether a relationship survives a failure of execution is all about the word ‘how’. How much? How bad? How big? How hard? How many times? With an execution failure you have a chance to fix it and keep the relationship intact. That is what separates it so clearly from a failure of intent. If intent is a digital switch with only two answers (yes/no), execution is a mixing board of analog dials with an infinite range of answers.

I haven’t done any research, but I bet the percentage of true intent failures is very small compared to execution, maybe 5% of the total. But, when you don’t have a strong relationship with someone, it is easier to assume intent, so intent is perceived to be more frequent. It takes an investment in someone, a benefit of the doubt, to work through the hows meticulously adjusting the dials. Without that investment, it’s easier to just flip the switch.

After I created the intent versus execution mindset, two things happened.

  • I realized how important it was to build relationships, to spend the time giving people insight into who I am. I reasoned that someday I would let them down, and when I did I wanted there to be no question about my motives. I wanted to avoid the assumption of intent. 
  • I also started to be slower to judge, to assume intent in others. Slower to assume that someone who fails me is evil. Instead, I am likely to assume they were human and fallible. I try to ask what I could have done to improve their success.

I may have been cut from that cloth anyway, relationships have always been important to me, as has empathy. And, even then, I don’t always succeed. I’m not a doormat.

But, I am happier assuming my waitress is having a bad day, or my colleague is fighting competing deadlines, or my kids are over stressed about school, than that they are actively pushing against me. They don’t mean to let me down, any more than I mean to let them down.

Frankly, it feels better to believe that. I feel better believing that.