“Underpromise and Overdeliver is a Damaging Trope; It Leads to Mediocrity.

“We underpromise and overdeliver” is a common refrain in many industries, not least of which in the business consulting world. It is also a fundamental marketing tactic amongst sales teams. 

I suspect you, my worthy reader, have deployed this now-tiresome trope at some point. Maybe you thought it sounded really slick. Made the client feel uber-confident in you and your team. 

It is not clever, and it leads to mediocrity.

You are maybe thinking “But Matt, why does it lead to mediocrity? How can that be? Isn’t it good to deliver more than is promised; more than is contracted, more than the client or colleague or public expected?”

Stay with me dear reader. This is not difficult stuff.

First, we must understand an element of Business 101. Goal setting and the three necessary elements of any goal. 

98% of you are thinking, “damn, speed it up, we all know what the three necessary components of a valid goal are.” Yet for the other 2% I will refresh your memory. An appropriate goal is:

  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Aggressive

The magic of a good goal is in striking that balance between attainable and aggressive. Attainable is easy to establish or aggressive is easy to establish. Yet a quality goal is one which requires a concerted level of excellent effort to hit the goal. Attainable AND aggressive.

Possible but you have to get after it. Hard but possible. A world class organization sets goals using all three metrics. You know where you are against the goal by its measurement and attaining the goal requires using all resources and appropriate priorities.

Let me walk you through two scenarios, one using our disgusting-to-me Underpromise and Overdeliver, and one where effective goal setting is used.

Scenario One feature a sophisticated team with a goal of 9% growth- make it revenue or program membership or workplace accident reduction or whatever your measurable is. For the purpose of this, let’s assume revenue, where due to inflation and market growth maybe a 4% growth would be considered normalization. In this circumstance, one can reasonably conclude that 9% growth is aggressive.

Is 9% growth attainable? 

Well, are you and your team average? Is that how you personally self-identify? Is it routine in your work environment to strive for ordinary? 

I am the guy out on that limb speculating that you DO NOT think that you are ordinary. I suspect you tend to think of yourself as, well let’s acknowledge it, as extra-ordinary. Maybe extraordinary.

So in this scenario, we go for 9% growth. That is our goal. Assume we hit it, or even miss by a bit. Even if we only get half that growth, we still beat the market average. If we miss by a couple points, we are still almost doubling the market average. 

Gaining market share baby! Building value. 


Conversely, in scenario two, let’s assume we plan to underpromise and overdeliver. We make a conscious decision to establish and state and sell a goal that is below what we think we can deliver. Hopefully we AT LEAST establish 4% but I am here to tell you many will not- they will lowball.  They need headroom to overdeliver. But let’s use 4%. If they come in at 5%, they beat their goal by 25% and feel oh-so-successful. Yay us! 

But they beat the market by one damn percentage point. Not gonna get your name in the newspaper with THAT mindset.

In comparison to the Scenario One folks, they trail that team in almost any situation. Our Scenario One team put in place steps to excel. They set high standards. If our world class Scenario One team only get two thirds of their desired growth they still beat our overdelivering team.

Our Scenario Two group set mediocre standards. And they become mediocre. That is perhaps kind; they started mired in mediocrity and they stayed mediocre.

It is a cancer in your culture to accept, and even run toward, mediocrity. Mediocrity kills culture. Excellence breeds a great culture. It is an immutable law of human nature to want to work with others toward excellence. It is NOT natural to be motivated, to be enthused, by lack of accomplishment.

Want to increase employee retention? Set high standards. Make it cool to be crisp.

Want employees to have a meh attitude toward colleagues and their work product? Start heaping praise on mediocrity. Spread around the employee of the month award until everyone has had a turn. 

The next time you hear someone tell you that their organization, top to bottom, is committed to underpromise and overdeliver, just know what this does to their culture over time. It is a word salad that at best means nothing and over time corrodes the performance of any team.

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