When I was very young in my consulting career, one of our company vice presidents told our team, “What you need to learn is to under promise and over deliver.” Our team had delivered a key project component late (thanks to an exuberant over promise by our Project Manager), and we were in very real danger of being monetarily penalized. What the vice president was saying, was that had we under promised (that is, had we offered less content in the deliverable), we would have easily made the date and avoided the penalty. However, had we at the same time provided content over and above what we had (under)promised, it would have been a bonus, and the client would have been delighted.
I was an eager learner, and this seemed to all make sense. Still, even though it made logical sense, it just didn’t feel right. We were capable of more. The client had hired us because he knew we were capable of more.
Sometime later, I was reading Alan Weiss’s book, Million-Dollar Consulting, when I came across this thought: “Under promising and over delivering is just another of those empty phrases that average consultants like to pontificate about. … But in actuality, if consultants under promised on a regular basis, clients would begin to question the degree of value-added assistance being provided.” And then he added this parenthetical phrase, almost a throw-away, but it struck me; “the corollary for the client would be to over demand and underpay.”
And there it was, the answer to the nagging discomfort of what I was feeling about this whole narrative. What our vice president essentially had said to us was that as consultants we were much more clever than our clients; and that our clients would never figure out that we had under promised. Whatever we did for them over and above what we (under)promised would keep us in their good graces. Today I consider such advice bordering on fraudulent.
On a recent consulting engagement, I advised my client, a senior executive, to personally act as liaison to her major project stakeholder. I believed that it would also carry more weight if she, in her senior role, were the one to facilitate the monthly stakeholder meetings. Over the time that I had worked with her I had observed several behaviors, two of which were pertinent to me in helping her facilitate these meetings: 1) whenever she presented, regardless of venue, she worked from a structured set of notes; and 2) she frequently used reading glasses (on and off, on and off). The day before her first presentation to the stakeholder, I provided her with summary talking points in 16 point bold Arial font. The meeting was conducted via phone conference, and she breezed through it not once having to put on her reading glasses. She was delighted, and I learned later that she had been telling other executive staff of what I had done to make her presentation successful.
It was a small thing, but it paid a huge dividends. I didn’t under promise; I just over delivered.
 Weiss, Alan Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice. 1992. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998, p. 52. Print.
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