The Art of Under-Promising and Over-Delivering

By Tracy MacDonald
Jan 2017

Regardless of where we each fall in the organizational food chain, we are responsible for completing things. Whether actions or tasks, everything has a deadline and in all likelihood someone at a higher level who will review it. Also known as accountability, it’s inescapable, and therefore expected. Where in this environment is there room to shine and be noticed when accountability is simply a measure of “doing our job?” It’s in the HOW we accomplish these tasks that our individual power lies.

In theory, anyone can do what they need to do to complete a task and do a job. But, those who under-promise and over-deliver are the people who not only stand out on their own but also raise the bar for their department and future expectations. Without digressing too much, it’s important here to address the “bar raising” point. One option for consideration is to involve your colleagues where you can. By taking a collaborative approach, you will be seen as a resource for all and will naturally show yourself as a leader. This will, in theory, minimize any feeling of intimidation or competition that may arise. In some environments where there is a prolonged culture of only doing what needs to be done to not lose one’s job, the behavior we are talking about could be seen as a threat. It’s entirely possible that co-workers may interpret this behavior as an attempt to “kiss up”, “brown nose” or make others look bad. If you are self- motivated and want to grow professionally, we recommend being prepared ahead of time for this. If you need to downplay your behavior, it’s perfectly acceptable to explain that perhaps your personal schedule is busy so you needed to care for work items ahead of time, or maybe you read about a particular technique for making a presentation and wanted to try it, or that you picked up on something your boss said about something he/she saw that was impressive and you wanted to try it. The most important thing is that you are comfortable with your message because it has to be genuine even if you are actually working to get ahead of your colleagues or show your true potential at work.
Now back to the topics at hand: under-promising and over-delivering. First, to be clear, under-promising does not mean doing less than you have been asked to do. What it means is enhancing, even in a small way, something you have already agreed to do. Under-promising means that even if you have an idea for a project, hold on to it until you’ve done some research, and only commit to what you have been asked to do. It means that if someone asks you to have something ready in a week, and you know you can have it done in 3 days, stick to the week. We will explain more about this, but in general, the idea is to commit and complete what you have been asked to , but when the time comes for you to deliver the finished product, go ahead and do so by over-delivering.
Over-delivering is where the magic in this process really is. There are several ways to go about it, and depending on the project and your environment, it is up to you to find the best fit. Here are some simple examples of over-delivering:

● Deliver a report by Noon or 2:00 when it’s due at the end of the day, but be sure it’s correct and complete
● Include visual aids where they have not been before in an effort to better demonstrate your point
● Include a small comparative assessment of what the competition may be doing in a similar space
● Include overarching goals and objectives of a particular action or project to show you have a big-picture understanding
● Show that progress on the project is already underway through upcoming meetings or brainstorming sessions or collaborative efforts.

While these ideas may seem simple and self-explanatory, it’s easy to get caught up in over-promising and then under-delivering, which is much worse. Taking the simple example of timing, it’s easy to see how this can happen. Let’s say it’s Tuesday, and your boss has asked for a report on Friday. You know you have some of the information already, and a template from a previous report, so you don’t need 4 days to complete it. In response, you want to impress your boss so you say you’ll have it done by Thursday morning. Your boss says that’s great and unbeknownst to you plans to share it during a lunch meeting on Thursday with his or her boss. You’re a hero for promising to deliver early, and so is your boss. Everyone wins. Until they don’t. Several things can go wrong here. A work emergency can come up requiring your attention to be drawn to something else. A personal emergency can do the same and keep you out of the office. Another possibility is that you turn in the report just before Noon on Thursday, but the format is incorrect, information is missing, or some aspect is inconclusive and needs updating prior to being presented to people at a higher level. In any of these instances, you are not able to deliver what was promised and neither is your boss. The result is that you both look bad. And even worse, any future attempts to over-promise will be looked upon with skepticism. In this example, it’s better to agree to Friday, but have a draft to review by end of day Wednesday, and if all goes well a final piece everyone can be impressed by available Thursday afternoon.
The whole point of this exercise and way of behaving is to create and exploit opportunities where you can shine. Be sure that when you try this, it is on a project with which you are familiar and one where you have the time you need to enhance your presentation or delivery. As you find these first successes, they will grow into more and so will your confidence in under-promising and over-delivering.

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