Underpromise and overdeliver, or not

I'm transferring jobs at the end of the month, from a systems engineering to a project engineering role, so I've been doing another read-through of The First 90 Days (notes) by Michael Watkins, to get ready for the switch.

In Chapter 4, about negotiating what success is supposed to mean with your new boss, there is this nugget of advice: underpromise and overdeliver. I don't know about that. I can think of situations where that's a good approach, but none of them with a boss that I respect.

If I was dealing with a customer, underpromise/overdeliver makes sense. There are real consequences—not just to you, but your project or company or to the customer—to picking an early date, or the expected date without margin, as a target and then missing it. The date you pick for deliveries is part of a real negotiation, contracts and agreements and all. You're not manipulating anyone by picking the expected date, or a date later than that for margin. (Things only break when there is no margin available to fix them.) You're negotiating, and you're getting agreement from the people receiving the thing you ship. And if you can pull off an early date and delight your customer? Congrats.

But internally, instead of externally? Intentionally selling someone on your own team a date that you know is wrong, just so you can score a big win, doesn't feel right. It's better to be honest and explain the margin up front. Maybe this kind of business book is targeted to career climbers who don't care about that. I think that starting a relationship with a foundation of lies—which is what it is when you know better and say something else—isn't the way to go.

A future post, perhaps, because it's something I do occasionally: get better at your predictions by writing them down up front, and then grading them later. Consider improvement instead of manipulation.

A few other, similar voices (you can go read Tom Peters if you want to hear that overpromise/underdeliver is good):

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