Promising what you can deliver

This post is my reaction to this article: Nobody cares how awesome you are at your job.

This is an interesting study because it confirms what I think is common sense.   If you promise something and deliver it, you get no extra credit by delivering more than you promised.   However, if you promise something and fall short of that promise, you will be punished.

The article itself suggests a kind of game that can be optimized: do not over invest to go beyond a promise, or don’t promise anything in the first place and repeat greater reward by the surprise.   However, my reaction to the basic findings is almost the direct opposite.

I was immediately reminded of some advice I heard a long time ago.   I recall the advice being abbreviated in the phrase “aim high” but that doesn’t quite capture the concept.   In essence, this advice is to do the exact opposite of the article’s suggestion.   The advice is to promise more than you feel confident in delivering.    This is advice for risking failure.

I don’t think this advice was naive.   The above study is restating old wisdom.   If you fail to deliver on a promise, you will be punished, often far in excess of what was at stake in the first place.   Given this reality, a economically rational decision would be that it is better to do nothing at all than to make a promise, or if making a promise it is better to be absolutely certain you can deliver.   The most irrational decision is to follow the advice given to me: risk failure.

What makes advice powerful is that it challenges you to think differently.   It seems natural to me to commit to promises only when you are certain of delivering.   If there is doubt of success, then it is better to not promise anything and surprise everyone instead.   Performing more than promised offers less additional value but failing to perform what was promised can cost more than the value of the project in the first place.    All of this suggests a natural and rational strategy of doubting success.   The advice to aim high, in contrast, presents the view it is failure that should be doubted: don’t be shy about making promises.

The modern workplace commonly follows the rational decision to not promise anything.   If a promise is required, then be extra certain you can deliver.

The first option us what plays out in the innovation of new products or services.   These products and services are developed often in secret.   They may or may not involve some research about what the market wants, but this is done without the market being aware of the development.   The company surprises the market with this finished product and reaps the benefits of suggested by the article.   The market praises and rewards the company for this surprise in making something the market never knew it wanted.   Later marketing may make some promises, but in general they are flashy versions of being sold as is.

The alternative common approach is to answer a request with a careful promise.    This always involves careful estimation of what one is capable of delivering.   The estimation involves several steps of adding together sub-projects or of multiple levels of review.   Each of these steps added more allowance to mitigate risk.   For example in the approval process, a common anecdote is that each level of approval doubles the estimate just to be safe.    Often the promise is highly inflated for what is necessary, but if the proposal is successful, the project will be rewarded solely on the fact that it met its promise.

In many cases, especially within government, there really is no competition.   The proposals do receive some review to check the estimates for reasonableness but that reasonableness permits the allowance for caution.    The accepted proposals meet the test of being a good value.

When there is competition, the winning proposals still have these allowances to mitigate these failures.  The distinction of the winner proposal is that the team has more efficient approaches or higher confidence in their ability so that they can add less padding to the estimate.   However, the competition is constrained by its peers in the sense that they can’t become too confident.    This constraint comes in the form of diligence to weed out proposals that appear to promise more than they can deliver.   That appearance of reasonableness comes by comparing the proposal with the peers.

Both of the above scenarios follows the advice suggested by the above article.   The first surprises the market with something it had no idea was coming.   The second is confident that it will not disappoint on a promise.

That leaves that aim high advice out in the cold.    That advice is to take the irrational approach.   At an extreme, it is promising more than one is sure he can deliver.

The following is a silly but true example.   I was late leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment.   I had intended to avoid driving and walk instead.  I knew I could walk there in 30 minutes or it would be 10 minutes (including parking, etc) to drive there.   By the time I stepped out of my house, I had about 15 minutes to meet the appointment.   I decided to walk.    I signed in at the doctor’s office right on time.   This is an example of aiming high.   That was not a typically leisurely walk.    This is a low risk example because the risk was low: as usual, I waited 20 minutes before getting called in.    However, internally, I made the commitment to get to the office on time with no confidence I could do it without working up a sweat and arriving out of breath.

Many opportunities require making promises beyond one’s confidence of being able to deliver.   These typically take the form of projects that have no competition.   They are the real life “mission impossible” opportunities.    In my experience, the opportunity takes the form of something that needs to happen in a short time frame if it were to be done at all.    In these examples, a perfectly acceptable response would have been to not attempt it at all.   However, it was not acceptable to fail if the project is attempted.

An example may be a meeting scheduled for the end of the day.    This meeting will happen in any case but it was scheduled in short notice.   The issues involved would be new to everyone.   The question is whether we can enter the meeting with something relevant to add on short notice.   The cost of this effort is in freeing up resources from normal commitments to make room for this effort.   If this is attempted, then there should be something positive to contribute by the time of the meeting.  This is something I never did before and it is a topic that was new to me.  I made the promise that I would have something prepared by the time the meeting started.  This is what I think of when I recall the advice of aiming high.

There are three choices.

  1. Decline the opportunity to make a promise and then drop a surprise during the meeting where I present something I found by working in secret.   This is like that surprise introduction of a new product or service.   If it was good news, I would come off as some kind of genius.
  2. Decline the opportunity and promise only to join the meeting with nothing to present.   Since this is all that was expected of me, I’d be rewarded for meeting this promise.    This is like the carefully estimated promise.   My delivered promise was to be present in order to accept direction for future actions.
  3. Accept the challenge and promise to have something positive and constructive to present in time for the meeting.   The only way to meet this promise is to have something to present and that something that advances the project with some relevant, meaningful, and constructive information.  Failing this promise will have very negative consequences in many ways.  At the very least, any future promises would not be as readily accepted.

That last choice requires a different kind of confidence.   Instead of being supported with quantitative past performance, this confidence comes from recognition of prior successes at accepting similar challenges.   This is a confidence that builds over time by taking similar challenges.   This is a confidence in being able to take a real risk where success is not a sure thing.

The advice to aim high was advice to step out of ones comfort zone and to do it in a way everyone knows you are promising to do it.  The secretive development of a new product or service also involves risks often pushing beyond a comfort zone, but this is done in secret.   If the project fails, few will notice the attempt.   In contrast, the aim high advice is to make everyone aware of what is about to be attempted.

The analogy that comes to mind is the story of Beowulf as it was taught me in school.   What I recall is that although the slaying of Grendel was a desired goal, before Beowulf boasts during a party he could do it he had the option to avoid the task.  Once he made the boast, he had to follow through.   Despite reasonable doubt he can succeed, he followed through with that boast.    The advice to aim high appeals to a similar sense of promising something important without firm evidence it will succeed.

Consider again the counter part of the secretive development of something new.   This secretive approach accepts the risk but keeps it private.   Although we celebrate successful launches of new products or services, we never hear of the ones that fail.   A secretive attempt at something risky keeps the risk private because no one is expecting anything to come out of it.   If the project fails, no one will notice.

Beowulf could have just as easily chosen to undertake his project in secret, giving him the option to flee if needed.   Instead, he let everyone know what his plans were.

The aim high advice is to follow the model of Beowulf and to make the promise known.   Everyone is watching.   They are also absorbing the risk that he would fail.   For example, if he failed, they would still have the monster but they would have fewer men and gear to continue fighting it.

This is an important point about the explicit promise to take a risky task.   That promise spreads the risk.  Unlike the secretive project, a promise exposes risk to the recipient of the promise.   The failure hurts both parties.    In the case of Beowulf he risked death but the community also risked loss of a valued member.

There are good reasons why competitive proposals are carefully estimated and evaluated for success.   The failure of the project would damage both parties.

There is still a place for risky promises where both parties realize the risk.   In my example of offering to attempt a project for a later meeting, I faced a skeptical client.   We both had doubts in success and both accepted the risk of giving it a try.  The stakes may have been low but they where there.   Usually there is some form of insurance available to the recipient of the promise.   Often that insurance is in the form of retribution.   In that meeting example, it was perfectly ok for me to say I could not do anything in time for the meeting.   But if I were to promise something, I could be fired if I don’t deliver.    Similarly, Beowulf didn’t have to promise he could kill Grendel, but once he did he either succeeded or he was killed for cowardice if not by Grendel.

One benefit of using the Beowulf story is that it is so old.   It represents an ancient culture of taking chances.   Similar stories appear in Homer’s epics.   These are old stories but even at the time when they were constructed they presented an even more ancient culture of encouraging able people to take very high risks.    These risks involve real uncertainty about the ability to succeed and return unharmed.

In modern times, there are still areas where this kind of explicit promises for tacking a problem with high risk.   We try to limit those to extreme cases where there is no other option.    For routine business, we prefer only promises that have a high degree of confidence that they will be met.

And yet this advice to aim high was presented to me in the context of a doing routine business.   It said to take that chance that you may fail in way you will regret.    I think it was appealing to this older ethos that we are in fact more capable than we think we are.   We are certainly more capable than suggested by past performance.    It is natural to have doubts of being able to success.   What makes this good advice is that it tells us to doubt our ability to fail.   I also think there is real wisdom in the advice in the sense that it recognizes that people are living and growing beings.   We are inherently capable of accomplishing things we never attempted before.   There is good reason to doubt our ability to fail.

We could pursue a risky project in secret, but this advice goes further to say this should not be a secret.   Show confidence in your doubting of your ability to fail by making a promise that you’ll succeed.   And then act.   The consequences of failure will not be kind.  However, the consequence of success will reward at the individual level of now having this to include as past performance and it will reward everyone by demonstrating a new possibility of human capability.

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