Shoot for the moon instead of playing the under-promise/over-deliver game

Some IT leaders say under-promising an outcome and then over-delivering is a key to success. Here's why that's little more than a recipe for mediocrity.

Image: NASA

You've likely been admonished at work to "under-promise and over-deliver," suggesting that you sell your abilities short, and then seemingly beat the odds by delivering a result that's better than expected.

For instance, if you can comfortably complete a task in two weeks, tell the board, boss, or client that it will take three weeks, and then deliver in a leisurely two and a half. Theoretically, everyone wins: the doers have a built-in safety cushion, while the requesters expect an output that's eminently reasonable. However, there are several problems with this approach.

Everyone knows better

One of the unwritten rules of the "under-promise over-deliver" game is that the parties involved generally know what's going on. Most mid-level IT managers know their subordinates play this game, and are not so far removed from technical work that they generally know what it takes to accomplish a particular task. If they need something that can generally be performed in a week, they'll ask that it's delivered in two days. When a two-week estimate is rebuffed, returned, and debated to ultimately settle on a week, no one is being fooled by the "under-promise" dance.

While there are exceptions, most workplaces generally tolerate people acting like adults, and being clear and truthful about their commitments and time estimates. Padding estimates or removing time to accommodate a misguided sense of "under-promise over-deliver" wastes time; also, that energy could have been more constructively applied if requesters provided honest deadline estimates, and the doers provided honest assessments about what and when they can deliver.

Did the greats under-promise and stand for mediocrity?

If you think of humanity's greatest accomplishments, its greatest minds, or its best athletes, it's rare you'll find instances of under-promising. When challenged by President Kennedy to send a man to the moon, NASA didn't promise that it would launch a rocket a few thousand feet into the air and "see what we can do." Babe Ruth didn't point to first base or make a bunting motion during the 1932 World Series in an effort to under-promise; rather, he boldly pointed to the center field stands at a clutch moment in the game, promising a home run that he soon delivered at a key moment in the game.

The greatest thinkers and leaders (e.g., Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Albert Einstein) challenged the boundaries of what was possible, and promised, demanded, and often delivered excellence. Promising outcomes that stretch others and place demands that seem unrealistic often brings out the best, especially from high performers who are inspired by lofty goals rather than intimidated. If you have an exceptional team, do you think they're inspired when you promise them safety and mediocrity, or a stimulating challenge?

Rise above the flock

Just as most parties recognize when they're willing participants in the "under-promise over-deliver" game, so too can they readily recognize those who rise above it. Whether you're a CIO or a junior programmer, promising stretch objectives, striving toward them, and often meeting them instantly sets you apart in a world of people who would rather under-promise their lives away. Even when you fail, in all but the most vindictive and overly political environments, people will recognize that you failed trying to "shoot the moon" rather than just clearing the tower.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...