The idea of underpromising and overdelivering is an underpinning of the ‘slacker@work’ philosophy. The basic idea is to help people set their expectations of you just a little bit lower than your plans for achievement.
What follows are a whole lot of words to describe what can actually come pretty naturally to most folks. Having said that, why should you bother with this at all? Why not just perform at your highest capability all the time? Let’s think about that. Imagine you get sufficient rest at night, there are no heavy personal matters weighing you down, your work tasks are predictable and manageable, you exercise regularly and take plenty of time for recreation away from work. This is probably the ideal situation for most people to perform at their peak capability. If this peak capability is your ongoing performance promise, then you’ll be disappointing yourself and others on a fairly regular basis, since any of these variables can get mangled at any time. Here’s an analogy: if you ask an Olympic level sprinter to run as fast as possible for as long as possible, then challenge them to a race, the Olympian will be completely exhausted and you’ll win the race even if you totally suck as a sprinter. Peak performance just can’t be sustained. It’s an excellent idea to know what you’re capable of and it’s an equally good idea to save it up for the times when it really matters.
Two tricky traps
This can be tricky, though, for a few reasons. I’ll outline the biggest two reasons here. First, if your planned achievement is lower than the achievement of everyone else around you, you’re doomed. Nobody is going to care if you underpromise and overdeliver because even your overdeliver is underwhelming. Second, even though you’re essentially “aiming low”, there’s always the opportunity to aim too low. That is, you can’t afford to over-underpromise. You need to be able to accurately assess what’s needed and nail it. Anything extra is included in the overdeliver.
That second reason needs to be unpacked a bit more–particularly the part about “accurately assessing what’s needed.” This is a whole lot easier to say than do. Truly knowing what’s needed requires the ability to see reality. Seeing reality goes beyond simply being able to recite specifications and requirements. It includes the ability to understand motivations and personal relationships–particularly your own. Our capacity for self-deception is remarkably robust and it takes some serious effort to be able to get beyond the knee-jerk responses and really analyze our own motivations. From my perspective, the best way to begin combating self-deception is to ask yourself the “five whys.” The Five Whys are usually reserved for organizational development activities, but the exercise can prove useful to the individual as well. Of course, if you have a trusted colleague who is willing to act as a sounding board in order help you dig deeper, by all means ask them to help you along this path.
The best place to work
Some work environments are better suited to the Underpromise/Overdeliver strategy than others. For instance, if your work is dictated to you and you aren’t seen as a subject matter expert, then you’ll have a bit more trouble making this strategy work. There’s always hope, though. For instance, call center employees often have quotas assigned to them, and their performance is measured in a variety of ways. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much that a call center representative can do with this strategy, but let’s look a little closer. If the organizational culture at that level is such that most folks view their jobs as simple cogs in a wheel, then you’ve got ample opportunity for the underpromise/overdeliver strategy. It won’t take much to allow yourself to be seen as just another cog by your fellow workers, but actually performing slightly beyond the accepted standard. Of course, if your coworkers catch on to your tricks, you’ll probably start feeling pressure to slow it down (review the Hawthorne Effect if you’re not familiar with this phenomenon). The ideal is to develop collegial relations with coworkers while at the same time being seen as a “go-to” person. Contrary to a common perceptions, being the go-to person doesn’t include being the team mommy. It just means that you can be counted on to deliver.
The best work environment for this strategy is one where your outcomes are clear, but the path to the outcome is left to you to determine. In a place like this, you can make conservative estimates as to outcomes and timelines, and then break speed and efficiency records getting there.