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How to Underpromise and Overdeliver

A promise is a bond. When a promise is broken, it could be devastating. You could lose trust, respect, and even your reputation over a broken promise. You can even go to jail in extreme breach of contract cases. But are we not all guilty? Or maybe some aren’t because they know some of these secrets I am going to share with you today. In this piece, I would show you how you can break fewer hearts, especially when dealing with software projects.

What can be promised?

  • Volume: This is by far the easiest thing to be promised. Volume is quantifiable and measurable. Hence, it is clear to both parties. Underpromising volume simply involves promising less than your capacity based on previous experiences.
  • Value: You can promise value. Value unlike volume is however complex as the term may be quite subjective. For instance, a software developer might see value in taking some months in refactoring and paying back the technical debt for a system already delivering value to the business. The client however might not see the value in this. Therefore, before the value is promised, it is necessary that the understanding from both parties is documented and clear. Also, focus on the why and not the how for value. Look for the simplest way to deliver that value and communicate the approach verbosely to the client so as to also see the value in it. Underpromising value is reaching an agreement on a proper understanding of the reason behind an initiative and taking the shortest or simplest approach to accomplish the initiative.
  • You: You can promise you. Yes. You can promise your brand. However, this is as dicey as promising value. The major problem is humans are fallible. We are affected by natural and unplanned circumstances and could be limited drastically by them. No matter how sure you are that you can’t fail, there is still a probability of not meeting up. Even the bible says:

Don’t swear by your own head. You cannot make one hair white or black. When you make a promise, say only “Yes” or “No.” Anything else comes from the devil.

Underpromising you involves factoring in the fact that you are limited and leaving chances for business continuity. Delegating, outsourcing and documentation is one way to go about this.

However, knowing how to underpromise the things that can be promised is not enough. There is one major spice you still need.

Let’s make this clear. Failed and met promises are more of a communication deficit or perfection respectively rather than the actual act of fulfilling the promise.

How then do you promise rightly?
Simple. By communicating rightly. No doubt, the success of a project largely lies in communication. But communication must be done right. What happens when your son needs a PS5 but you can only afford a Nintendo Wii? You talk to him lol. You make him understand the value of a Nintendo Wii over a PS5, how it is portable and durable because it’s been around for a while. You also make him understand the volume of functionalities that can be done with a Nintendo Wii till he re-considers the decision or sees PS5 as a luxury. And most importantly, you tell him you prefer the Nintendo Wii as your decision as his Daddy should be trusted. This is what underpromising is. Software projects are in no way different. Underpromising and overdelivering rely on top necessary 21st century skills. Problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and especially negotiation. It involves the ability to communicate the value and volume of your work in a way where your decision is trusted and you underpromising is not visible by the client.

Here are a few tips on the effective ways of communicating your promises:

  • Don’t wait for the client before you give updates. Water their mouth, re-iterate your promises. Communicate your challenges so they can know and empathize with the efforts to fulfill that promise. This way, they are aware of the chronology of events even before the promise is broken if it does.
  • Keep to your promises. Avoid adding to or removing from your promise. If you however want to do that for exceptional cases that can’t be avoided, make sure you do a proper retrospection of your previous promise and still make sure to underpromise.
  • Hold as many meetings and conversations as possible till you have clarity on what needs to be done before communicating any promise.
  • Take your promises seriously. Use tools that would make you accountable to them and remind you when you are falling short.
  • Never use words like “just” or “simple” that seem to commonize your work. For instance: “This requirement is just plug and play.” “Simple. It’s just to change the background color”. These are very wrong statements to say to your clients. You have to understand that because it takes you just a few minutes to finish a task could have been a result of constant practice and experience. Hence, the volume and value of your work have to be properly packaged.
  • Get off the populist mindset. Don’t promise what your customers want to hear. Rather, be deep-rooted in their requirements and broaden their mindset to things beyond what they are seeing. This would make them trust your decision even when your decision is eventually an underpromise.
  • Practice Agile and hype your increment after each sprint. Only a model such as Agile that can easily accommodate changes and feedback with time in consideration is perfect for underpromising. But make sure your increments are super hyped. Don’t just come up with the usual demonstrations. Have great slides, nice presentation, and communicate the increment done glamorously.
  • Pile up your future excuses to use if the project fails and underpromise to mitigate each of the identified excuses.
  • Don’t just talk, make sure you have all your promises written. Promises can be forgotten so it needs to be reproducible and signed.
  • Take a payment plan that puts both you and your client in a safe place. Avoid full payment for jobs with unclear requirements.

In conclusion, Job done is a cliché. Extraordinary is the new ordinary. Mediocre is equals to nothing. We live in a world where people want to be awed and thirst for wonders. Sensational news is the order of the day and only crazy posts and videos get viral. The only way you can appeal to this thirst and manage these crazy expectations is to overdeliver and not just deliver. And the best approach to overdelivering is underpromising.

Top comments (2)

abisolaoye profile image
Abisola Oyetunji

I enjoyed reading this and also learnt a lot.

femolacaster profile image

Thank you, Abisola.