Never Under-Promise nor Over-Deliver. Seriously.

I was reading a project management thread on LinkedIn the other day and saw a relatively young project manager give the following advice to the group:

"I always under promise what I can do. And then I over deliver. Successful project managers always do this. Surprise your customer by giving more to him/her and do it earlier than they expect and for less cost. You will be their hero."

Uh, no, you won't. In fact, what this relatively inexperienced PM was admitting to is that a) they lie to their customers; and b) they don't give them what they both mutually agreed to.

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I see this mindset a lot with young project managers. This is a classic trap. They want to impress. They want to be able to say they came in under budget and earlier than scheduled. So they under promise on schedules and costs. If a job is estimated to take a month, they tell the customer it will take six weeks. If it's expected to cost $100K, they tell the customer it will cost $125K.

And then, when they do deliver earlier than expected and at lower cost, they strive to hand over extra scope that they created and/or ensure better quality than the customer asked for. Then they stand back and expect praise and attaboy/girl back-slapping from the customer—but just as often, they’re met with dissatisfaction from the stakeholder.

The Problem With Under-Promising and Over-Delivering

Even though it sounds good on its surface, under-promising and over-delivering is not a good practice. In fact, it's the very definition of bad project management.

Sure, if you come in under budget and/or ahead of schedule, great.

But never tell your customer a lie about how long something will take or cost up front just so you can look good later. If something is expected to take four weeks, well, tell your stakeholders that. Don't lie to them and say five weeks just to give yourself an easier date you can beat. That's wasteful, lying, and basically plain old poor management.

Similarly, you and your team should never over-deliver scope or quality. If you promised X, then provide X. Not X+. There is no free lunch in project management; to deliver the "+" you had to pay for it somehow, either in terms of cost, schedule, or giving up quality or scope elsewhere. This is not what the customer signed up for at the beginning of the project. They asked for X, so, dammit, give them X.

Your job as PM is be honest, straightforward, and open with your stakeholders. Tell them the truth from the beginning. Then strive to deliver exactly what you agreed to up front, no more and no less. Do that, and you'll succeed in Project Management. Don't, and you won’t.


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