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.



21 thoughts on “How I Under Promised, Over Delivered and Screwed Myself

  1. moneyrichgrills says:

    ahh me too! i’ve since learned a tactic from my boss, who is a very wise man.

    q: why cant you do it? its nothing you have not done before
    a: well feature XYZ and this other one ABC is too complex, if you want it delivered on time you’ll have to reduce the number of [fields, components] in XYZ.
    q: oooh ok let me talk to everyone and get back to you

  2. Jeff Jenkins says:

    That wasn’t really under promising and over delivering. The point of under promising is that you do your normal amount of work and that is over delivering *compared to what you promised* (or just delivering if you hit delays).

  3. The problem with that adage, “Under Promise, Over Deliver”, is that you’re sandbagging. You are not being true to yourself, and you are not giving your best effort. Best effort doesn’t mean 60 hour weeks, but it means working hard during the time you’re on the clock. Your integrity is the most valuable asset you have, and losing it can be detrimental.

    • Nathan says:

      Good point. Once you lose your integrity it can be lost forever, or at best, it will take a very long time to rebuild.

    • Nathan says:

      Hi Lucas, possibly but it can be a difficult line to walk. If you under promise, the client may lose faith in your expertise. I’ve found that it all boils down to expectation management. If you’re on top of that then everything becomes so much easier!

  4. Drew Foster says:

    Curious to know; where you paying overtime to the developers for all the extra hours (and charging the client for said overtime?).

      • gtheys says:

        So occasional overtime is expected because they’re salaried? Since when you expect something for nothing. Funny how capitalism works…

  5. Kevin Lyda says:

    From your article, you didn’t under-promise. You just did the over-deliver bit until you burned out your team. That’s not a sustainable model.

  6. How about “under promise and deliver” instead of over delivering and keeping the delivery status to actual delivery plan. By over delivering the excitement of the client raises and it becomes really difficult to bring this excitement down.

  7. haliphax says:

    Sigh… managers. Why not ask your team what you think they can accomplish, and how quickly they can accomplish it? I’m sure they absolutely loved missing “a few family appointments” to keep up with a slave-driving pace.

  8. Aditya says:

    I don’t think “under promise and over-deliver” means what you think it means!

    Let’s say you pack boxes for a living. You know that you can pack 80 boxes an hour, for a total of 640 boxes a day, and 3200 boxes a week (80 x 8 x 5)

    These numbers include breaks, lunch, and everything else. This is a normal, comfortable work week.

    You know that you can push this a little and do perhaps 3500 boxes a week, without driving yourself nuts or killing yourself with overwork.

    Now, to under promise and over-deliver, you would commit to doing 3000 boxes a week. Or perhaps 3100

    Your normal pace of work should get you to that number easily, and you can even over deliver by 50-100 boxes on occasion. But ONLY on occasion; you don’t want to set the expectation that this is normal.

    Let’s say your client suddenly needs more boxes (holiday season). Since you’ve run the numbers, you know you can go up to 3500 boxes without too much trouble. So you tell your client you’re going to help him out, and agree to 3400 boxes.

    Now, everyone wins. You aren’t burnt out, your client is very happy, since you came through in a crisis, and he doesn’t expect this to be the new normal.

    To successfully under promise and over deliver, you have to be able to accurately estimate the amount of work you (or your team) can do in a normal work week, with 10% overtime, and 20% overtime, and promise accordingly.

    You ALWAYS leave room for unexpected things (people quit, accidents happens, power goes out)

    • Nathan says:

      I partially agree with that. Since the above occurred I’ve learnt a lot, not the least of which is that managing expectations is one of the most, if not the most, important to focus on.
      The catch with delivering less than your capacity is that have waste, keeping that aside as contingency is fine provided this is an agreed and conscious decision.

  9. Stephen says:

    Yeah, what you did here is the classic rookie mistake about what “under promise, over deliver ” is. This term is actually not meant as a customer service term. It was never ever meant to be that. It’s a scheduling and management tool used to manage and set customer expectations.

    The reality is no project goes of without a hitch. So you give your team an extra day a week to smooth those problems our polish the product. So your quote should have been assuming a 4 day week and your team should have been working a 5 day week.

    Further, over delivering is not a norm, not should you give the client a world. If you can burn your team out and give the client all the bells and whistles, don’t. Just use the spare time to give them a bell or a whistle.

    Now the one problem with this technique is inevitable down time. This is the price you pay for the insurance of wiggle room. Believe me, it’s worth it though.

  10. Great post and spot on as well. This is the challenge all of us small business service providers face. If we are one of many who deliver the same product, how do we stand out? Only by strong execution of a smart strategy with an excellent outcome for the client.

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