Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Promises and Delivery

Who do you respect more? Someone who promises and delivers, or someone who promises and fails to deliver? Obviously, someone who promises and delivers. How about between someone who under-promises and over-delivers versus someone who over-promises and under-delivers? Your immediate reaction would likely favor someone who under-promises and over-delivers, but it really isn’t so clear. It depends on how much is under-promised versus how much is over-delivered, or in the other option, on how much is over-promised versus how much is under-delivered. In both of the latter two cases, it also depends on the stream of excuses you can expect to receive, and on how many you will tolerate. The excuses can absolutely drive you to distraction! We’ll go into all of these scenarios.

Let’s start with the person who simply promises and delivers, consistently and repeatedly. What does this mean? This is someone who says what he means (his promises), means what he says (his integrity), and does what he says he’ll do (his delivery). [See Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!] This is typically a person who doesn’t even think about the possibility of over- or under-promising; he just promises what he realistically and capably can do, and does it. This is a person who you can trust! [See Trust Me, I’m Not Like the Others!] When you have someone like this in your organization, you have a real gem, and this is a gem you should treasure. This is a gem who others should emulate and admire. No muss, no fuss, no excuses. He just does the job at the high level of ability he knows he has, and consistently delivers on his promises! Build your organization around this person and encourage your other people to follow his example.

Next, let’s look at the person who under-promises and over-delivers. 
  • One variation of under-promise/over-deliver is the person who under-promises slightly, but who is confident he can at least deliver on his promises, and in all likelihood deliver more. This can be a good person to have, if the under-promises are not far off the mark of what is being asked, and if the over-delivery is consistently more than what has been promised. However, this person should be encouraged to understand and appreciate what he really can do, and move toward the model of the person who simply promises and delivers, and away from under-promising and over-delivering, and the potential excuses that can come along with that.
  • Another variation of under-promise/over-deliver is the person who consistently and substantially under-promises, knowingly low balling what he can deliver precisely so he can deliver more to look good, or to be seen as a workplace hero (see Munchausen-by-Proxy in the Workplace). By consistently under-promising, this person helps to make his workload lighter, often to the detriment of others who are asked to take on more to handle what this person says he can’t do. When this person then over-delivers, his intent is to look better in comparison to those who had to take on even more than their normal workload due to this person’s under-promising. When intentional, this under-promise/over-deliver variation can be subversive and conniving, and can significantly erode the morale and performance of the group as a whole. This person needs to be called out on such unacceptable behavior, either by his managers or by his co-workers who are suffering from such intolerable behavior.

Finally, let’s look at the person who over-promises and under-delivers.

  • One variation of over-promise/under-deliver is the person who over-promises slightly, often out of a positive can-do attitude to help to the maximum amount possible, but who then finds it difficult or impossible to deliver on all that he has promised. This person’s heart is generally in the right place, but he needs to more realistically assess what is really possible, and temper what is truly possible to deliver. As with the first under-promise/over-deliver variation above, this person can be a valuable member of a team, and, with time, can also be moved toward the model of the person who simply promises and delivers, and away from over-promising and under-delivering, and the potential excuses that can come along with that. This person should be coached on how to properly and realistically estimate what he can actually deliver.
  • Another variation of over-promise/under-deliver is the person who consistently and substantially over-promises, whether knowingly or not.
    - In the most positive case, this is simply an overly optimistic team member who doesn’t really have a clue on how to estimate his/her capabilities or how long it realistically takes to accomplish specific tasks. This person needs a crash course on how to realistically assess what can and cannot be done in specific timeframes. In the meantime, other teammates will pay the price for this person’s poor estimation skills by helping take on this person’s under-estimated work.
    - In the most negative case, this may be a person who, for whatever reason, purposely sets out to sabotage a project by virtually guaranteeing that critical deliveries are missed, potentially killing the project entirely and significantly damaging the company, its reputation, and its customers. It is critical to ferret out such a person as early as possible, and get this person out of your organization, and preferably out of the company.

Virtually everyone who is involved in a project must make promises on what they can and will do, knowing they will be measured by their ability to deliver on their promises. For a team to be truly effective, their promises need to be truly realistic, neither under-promising nor over-promising. They then need to consistently deliver on their promises. The role of an effective manager is to help them achieve this result, coaching those who need help, removing those who seek to disrupt, and rewarding those who consistently promise and deliver.

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. Tom,
    Thanks for another excellent and thought provoking article. I wanted to see if I could begin with a few basic principles and come up with the same result as you describe here.

    The basic principles I propose are:
    1) Honesty is the best policy,
    2) Estimates are inherently uncertain, (see the discussion of error bars in “The Schedule Estimation Extortion Game”), and
    3) Always do your best.

    Honesty prohibits sandbagging—deliberately committing below your capability with the intent to manipulate resources or image—and it also requires delivering on commitments. We agree on this.

    But since estimates are inherently uncertain, it seems wasteful to interpret a commitment as an upper bound on what is delivered. Doing your best often allows talented people to over deliver in many instances. Therefore promising to deliver what is needed, then delivering at least that much—and more if you are able to and it is helpful—seems to be the best strategy. Of course, communicate updates to your estimates promptly as your actual progress on the work allows you to make more accurate estimates.


    Lee Beaumont

  2. Hi Lee,
    Thanks for your great comments and great analysis. I concur with your conclusions.

    Thanks - Tom


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