How I Under Promised, Over Delivered and Screwed Myself

“We need to under promise and over deliver.”

I didn’t realise how much pain would come from that one little statement.

Significant effort had gone into winning this contract so we were super keen to get going.

It started with an internal meeting that focused on the expectations set and how we were going to now deliver.

That’s when it happened. I blurted those horrible words out.

“We need to under promise and over deliver.”

Perfect! By giving the client more than they expect, we guarantee success! Right?!

Reflecting on this, I wonder what was wrong with me.
How did I not see what would happen?!

A week later we had the kick off. It was fairly standard with the client asking if we could deliver ahead of schedule. Ensuring I set realistic expectations I suggested we deliver as planned.

The project moved along and thanks to some long days we actually managed to deliver functionality ahead of schedule.
At this point I was very pleased with myself, we were under promising and over delivering!
Just like planned, the client is going to be overjoyed!

We continued our iterations, tuning functionality and consistently over delivering when the team started to become disgruntled and exhausted.

To continue to over deliver, the team had been working very long hours, weekends and some had missed important family appointments.

The over delivery had taken its toll. It was not sustainable and I was convinced that the next deliverables would be done in a more realistic manner.

The next day we presented to the client, they were surprised at what we’d achieve in such a short time and were happy that we were ahead of schedule.
The discussion turned to the next set of deliverables, the effort and the expected delivery dates.

This is where it all started to fall apart.

Regardless of the time we said it would take, the client kept demanding it to be shorter.
To hit their new dates we would have to continue to work double and sometimes triple time.

I pushed back, the team couldn’t be under this amount of pressure again.
Regardless of highlighting the teams overtime efforts, the client would not accept fewer deliverables.

We had some verbal, professional jousting with it ending when the client stated:

“Why can’t you do it? We’re not asking for anything more, it’s actually less than what you delivered before.”

The wheels were coming off..

My grand plan to under promise and over deliver had led to a disaster!
The delivery team was exhausted, the client was annoyed and I was screwed.

It was time to stop and breathe, anxiety was quickly building and sinking into misery was not going to fix this.
I had to rectify this, but how?! I felt buried with no way out.

That’s when it hit me. By consistently over delivering I had actually set the expectation that it will become the norm and it was only through stressful days, long nights and large amounts of caffeine that it could be maintained. That was not sustainable.

Over the next few meetings, with significant effort, the discussions started to turn around. I had been reborn and now realised:

It’s not about the effort, it’s about the outcome
The client did not care how much effort we’d put in. My attempts to highlight this were pointless. Do I care how long it takes a mechanic to fix my car? No, I just care that its fixed. By focusing on the outcome we regained traction.

We needed to become a partner
It’s quite likely that the client is under a massive amount of internal pressure to deliver this project. By recognising this, the discussion turned around, it was no longer about what the team was delivering it now focused on how we were progressing towards their business goals.

The expectations had to be reset
Building a happy client cannot be done through incorrect expectations. Over delivering set the expectation that we’d continue to deliver massive amounts of work however this was causing the team to burn out. This had to be rectified to reflect the reality of consistent delivery.

As painful as this was, it did teach me a lot.
Get on top of this before it blows out.

Under promising and over delivering is for suckers.



Managing Expectations..Like a Boss!

The previous post, Save The Surprises For Your Loved Ones, detailed why surprises are bad for clients and the nasty situations that can arise when expectations are not managed appropriately.

Of course it would be best to avoid those situations altogether and doing so is actually quite simple.

The key is to step up, take action and invest the effort into consciously setting the expectations.

Clients who are misaligned will quickly become angry, the trust and credibility you’ve worked so hard to build will disappear. Coming back from this is extremely difficult as it requires rebuilding the relationship and can only be done over extended periods of times.

Investing significant amounts of effort here will pay off enormously!

Remember the client is not to blame here, you should be controlling the expectations.

You cannot spend too much effort ensuring everyone is aligned and there is a common understanding.

The below can help here

Be upfront

  • Put a lot of effort into kicking off the project. The initial project meeting lays the foundations for the project moving forward and is an excellent time to clarify and align expectations.
  • Ensuring the client understands the delivery methodology, what will be the outcome and what they need to do.
  • This is also the time to clarify and correct any assumptions that have been made, both from your side and the clients.
  • A great way to do this is to highlight what is not in scope. When you explicitly state something is out of scope you will be called out if its important, avoiding the problem before it arises.

Force the difficult conversations

  • Don’t let misunderstandings fester, hunt them down with vengeance.
  • This will lead to difficult conversations, there is no way to avoid this, however the magnitude is proportional to when you raise them. If you jump on the misunderstandings quickly it is much easier to control.

Control your response

  • It sounds fundamental, but do not lose your temper or be crass. There will be situations where you will be yelled at, belittled and threatened with legal action, the initial response will be to fight back with your own version of abuse.
  • Do not do this in any case. It is a very serious career limiting move.
  • The most powerful response is calm, collected and patient. If you do not have all the answers do not commit until you do.
  • This is also good to remember when dealing with toddlers

As an example, in a previous life we had a 6 month project to deploy and integrate a client’s systems to our product, or so we thought….

The team went to the kick off, eager to get started and work through the details.

When discussing the timeline the client stopped us

“Why are you saying 6 months? We agreed to 3 months!”

There was silence. There was no way we could deliver 6 months of work in 3 months.

It turns out that during the sales cycle, a date for go-live had been mentioned that was 6 months out.

The sale then stalled for 3 months.

The effort hadn’t changed, however the client still thought it would be implemented by the original date.

This clarification was tense and awkward, however the troops were rallied and the client agreed to rebaseline the project at 4.5 months.

They turned out to be one of our happiest clients, all because we managed the expectations…

Like a Boss!


Save The Surprises For Your Loved Ones

There was recently an incident in our office where the coffee machine was being replaced and there would be no water for two days.

This was discovered from a note on the kitchen bench on the day there was no water.

That was all the notice we received.

Why was I annoyed? Was it because I was thirsty? Could I not be bothered to go to another tap? Am I too precious about my first world problem?

Whilst all was true, my frustration stemmed from my seemingly logical expectation that I’d have access to water when I wanted it and it was a surprise that this was not the case.

Last minute surprises are a sure fire way to build unhappy clients.

If prior notice had been given this would not have been an issue, the problem was my expectations had not been managed.

Managing your clients expectations is essential to avoid these types of awkward situations. Its nothing new but its definitely one of the most important techniques for success.

Ensuring the clients expectations are aligned correctly is critical, failing to do so can lead to


  • In the best case, nasty surprises can evoke undesirable emotions and you will be the one bearing the brunt.
  • Be prepared for a tirade but remember that you caused it through your mismanagement.

Broken Trust

  • This can be temporary or permanent and is usually related to the impact of the misalignment.
  • It’s no big drama if water isn’t available for two days, but if it’s blow out in budget or timelines it can be severe.
  • Trust is very difficult to build yet can be lost in an instant and once trust is gone it is very hard to maintain the relationship.

Unstable relationship

  • Some surprises may be so extreme that the relationship cannot be rebuilt.
  • This can not only derail the project but also your career and business. I’ve heard of situations where GM’s have threatened to spread bad words throughout their network if the project/product does not hold up to the expectations that have been set.

Legal problems

  • If the damages call for it, the client may pursue legal action. Best to check your records are sound and hope you’re communications were accurate.

Save the surprises for your significant other, it is extremely important that you manage your clients expectations appropriately.

My next post will talk about how you can take the bull by the horns with techniques you can use to control the expectations.