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Archive for December 9th, 2007

Under Promise, Over Deliver

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

I've been noticing the idea of under promising and over delivering for a while, and it has definitely got my interest. My first concept of it was that when you're obligated to to something, promise to do a bare minimum job, well within expectations, but nothing exceptional. Or, if a favor is being asked, you don't need to make any promises. Then, in both cases, over deliver by going above and beyond the basic expectation you've created. Sounds fine. But there's another take on it.

I was searching for more information, and I came across an article at called, "We Got It Wrong: Never Under Promise and Over Deliver." This article goes into detail about how the trick can actually work against you. Essentially, when you continually sell yourself short to a repeat client, that client will begin to doubt you no matter what you say. He will learn that it pays to expect more than you say is possible, and will continually demand more of you to the point where you're no longer under promising. You tell him the truth, that you can honestly do only so much in a certain amount of time, but he'll still expect more — a better job, done faster. At a certain point he'll begin to expect the impossible, and you'll suffer the consequences.

But that article deals with a completely different take on under promising and over delivering. In my concept of it, you promise the basics. In the article, you take that basic expectation of yourself, and then give yourself an unnecessary buffer. So instead of saying, "The job can be done in 3-5 days," you'd basically lie and say, "5-7 days." This version of the trick is to always convince people that things will be more difficult than they actually are, and it's no wonder it can so easily backfire.

Here's an image I made comparing my concept of "under promise, over deliver" to the article's.

It's very interesting to see what happens with the exceptional job. If you under promise, you can work on over delivering an exceptional job all the while filled with glee at how surprised and impressed your boss, client, or friend will be. You can also feel good because you're doing a great job just for the sake of it. But when you are forced to do a great job each and every time, even when it seems unnecessary, it can become a difficult thing to enjoy. Once over delivering becomes a steady obligation, work can start to seem tough. You're never sure of where you stand, because no matter how impossibly good a job you do, you might be asked to do an even better one next time. That can be stressful.

However, I think that we shouldn't give up on under promising and over delivering just yet. The article ends up recommending over promising and then delivering on those promises, all the time. But I think the reason "under promise, over deliver" became so popular is that to over promise is to risk your credibility.

So here's how I see it. When a task is assigned to you at your job with a deadline, accept it, complete it on time, but on the day of delivery, have something extra to show for. Don't over deliver time wise, over deliver task wise.

If someone asks you for a favor, then you can under promise to your heart's content. "I might be able to, but don't get your hopes up." That frees you in case of sudden obligations, and if nothing else comes up, you can do them the favor, and over deliver by simply fulfilling their basic request. If you want, you could go overboard on the task and surprise them even more. And since there was no real obligation, they won't be justified in expecting you to honor every future request they make.

That's my take on it. I could be wrong. Do you have any suggestions or insight on this matter?