Why “Under Promise and Over Deliver” is a Bad Mantra

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You’ve heard it a million times: “Under promise and over deliver.”

But why?

Is it so that our customers or stakeholders won’t be let down by our actions or products?  Perhaps because we worry about our ability to deliver?

Both are poor reasoning, and suffer from a lack of confidence.

Most people, if asked, say they pride themselves on their ability to follow through.  Most also rate themselves as having high ethics.  The same is true of organizations.

So why all the under promising?

Aren’t most of us more impressed by service providers who stake a claim and make good on it than we are by those who set us up for limited, or uncertain, expectations and then exceed them?  (Isn’t it possible to exceed limited expectations and still be average?)

Even if some among us are not, I submit that individuals and organizations leave a telling advantage on the table by failing to make more of their promises public.  If a person or organization takes pride in the ability to follow through, and consistently proves this ability, doesn’t it make sense to capitalize on it?  Don’t our customers and stakeholders want to know up front what to expect, and that the reputation of the organization and its representatives is such that excellence is all but assured?

Consider the same phenomenon in your personal relationships.  If someone asks you to go to the movies, and you say, “Yes, I can go to the movies with you in a month,” does it strengthen your bond further by calling them next weekend and saying you can go?  I’m sure many will find that example absurd, yet we do it as representatives of our respective organizations every day.

It is time to retire “under promise and over deliver” and replace it with “promise, then deliver.”

This realizes a competitive advantage if individuals and organizations are reliable, and strengthens relationships by doing not less or more, but exactly what we have promised.  If we can do better than our initial promise by delivering early or at a lower cost, great, but to limit what we promise for fear of failing if it is part of our core business is fatal.

Someone will no doubt argue that under promise and over deliver works if you cannot control the outcome.  Fair enough, but isn’t it more transparent to say so, then follow up with a firm commitment after you have checked with the others who will help you make it happen?  Again, a personal parallel: how many parents, upon being approached by a child for some permission, reply with something like, “Let me talk to your mother”?  The child, will, of course, persist, but the promise will not be forthcoming until the issue has been ratified.  Is business all that different?

It needn’t be.

Promise, then deliver.

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