The Old Becomes New Again: Under Promise and Over Deliver

Most people are marking the fall of 2009 as the one year anniversary of the beginning of our economic woes. In reality the signals were sounding much earlier in 2008 and late 2007. The market slide actually started in October of 2007. From that point to now we have been in a profound learning curve. Some of what we have learned is "new-learning." Much of what we have learned has really been "re-learning," which has required us to "un-learn" some ill-fated behaviors and habits. And for most of us, re-learning and unlearning are more painful than learning something for the first time.

The last year and a half has re-taught all of us some great lessons if we have been paying attention and open to growth. As I evaluate the landscape that is littered with dashed dreams, broken promises, interrupted or shattered careers, and depleted resources, the lesson that keeps resonating with me is something my first business mentor pounded into my psyche, "under promise and over deliver."

It sounds so simple and so logical that we almost take it for granted. However, there is plenty of evidence all around that in fact our culture has gone to a diametrically opposed philosophy of "over promising and under delivering." Further, because we so often collectively over promise and under deliver we have added a third component to the phrase: "Over promise, under deliver, find someone to blame for the resultant failure."

It is easy to understand how we have migrated from a simple, almost self deprecating culture of understating our intentions and abilities to prolifically overstating and aggrandizing. There is no question that competition for everything is great and ever escalating. Whether for budget dollars, promotions, the patronage of a client or simply "air time" with our intended audience, unless our claim doesn’t rise above the rest we usually get drowned out by the bold and the brash. Compounding the difficulty of being heard in the cacophony of outrageous brags is the fact that the audience has become so lax in their diligence to validate and verify claims that they tend to simply capitulate to the most frequent and most seductive offer.

The examples are innumerable but a few very clearly come to mind; Bernie Madoff and his off the chart "returns"; professional athletes claiming victory before the game begins; the endless loop of diet and nutritional magic pill supplements marketed in infomercials on TV; fitness quick fixes; even miracle pills to make you irresistible to the object of your affection. If this stuff really worked the hucksters wouldn’t have to advertise, word of mouth would spread like wild fire. And yet you can’t poke the remote up or down the spectrum without hitting some miracle solution within any five cable or radio channels. Billions are spent annually for nothing. And you can bet the same people that have been disappointed by the last miracle are the first to succumb to the next.

Perhaps the most blatant example is in our politicians. This is true on both sides of the aisle. Politicians have understood for a long time that they can make promises they know are outrageous for the sole purpose of garnering a vote. Once elected the constituents rarely remember what they thought they were getting in return for their vote. And again, the excuses for lack of success are ready-made.

Applying this same lesson to our careers and our companies may have some value. Corporate America has not been immune to unsubstantiated claims whether inside companies or to external markets and investors. CEO’s and CFO’s have over sold their strategies and expected returns. Employees and teams have persistently signed up to deliver transforming outcomes that have ended with a whimper rather than the promised bang. New products, new markets, acquisitions, divestitures and all manner of "strategic" initiatives more often than not come to less than the anticipated outcomes.

It seems to be in this period of disappointment and unfulfilled promises that those that can truly deliver may have regained an advantage. As our companies and departments are refocused on real outcomes, tangible returns on investment and the ability to accurately predict what to expect from the future, perhaps we should pay attention to both the promises we are making and the deliverables we are committing to.

There are a few key criteria we can focus on in order to assure that we are in fact going to realize what has been promised:
  • Know what you really want and need from the situation or opportunity. If the claim promises to deliver well beyond the requirement, it is probably not sound. Rethink what you want, why you want it, and just what it is going to take to get it. Write it down. Make it public.
  • Assess whether or not you have the capital, time and talent to be successful. A lot of great ideas and commitments end up failing because they are un-funded or under-funded. More often than not the deficit is in the funding and sequestering of talent, not of money. My CFO taught me long ago, "You can’t make someone’s plate bigger, so if you want to put something on their plate, decide what you are going to take off first." (Thanks, Bill.)
  • Complete the diligence to determine if the claimant (even if that is you) has the track record and demonstrated capability of having delivered on his or her claims in the past. It is a truism that past performance is a strong indicator of future performance. Hire someone who has changed jobs every two years and you can bet they will be gone from you in two years. We are what we are. Only play with winners, and know that winners are born, not made.
  • Define the desired outcome in clear detail. The argument about whether or not the deliverable met the objective is solved on day one, not at the end of the process. The closer you get to a binary definition of success and failure the more likely you are to be satisfied with the outcome.
  • Publicly take responsibility for both the process that will be followed and the outcome that you are committed to. Clear accountability is unusual today. Choose to be unusual in this regard.
  • Deliver on your commitment to hold people accountable to the promises they make and to measure progress and outcomes assiduously and consistently. If you do this you will gain a reputation for driving accountability. An interesting thing will happen, those that don’t have a penchant for delivering on their promises will stop hanging around your team and your company. This is another one of those re-learned lessons, "those things that get measured get done."
  • Recognize actual delivery on a promise. People that carry through should get the best opportunities and the first promotions for jobs they are capable of doing successfully. Those that fail to deliver on promises must be removed from the team. It really isn’t more complicated than this. Under-promising and over-delivering should be the foundation of a meritocracy. And contrary to current popular rhetoric, meritocracy is still the foundation of a productive and sustainable organization (and society).
The conclusion then is that we should be a little counter-cultural in regards to promises and delivery on those promises. In the din of exaggeration, be understated, humble, down played and simply blow the competition away with the outcomes you and your team deliver. You will have customers, an organization and a team of raving fans as your reward.