The dangers of over promising

Paul Boag

Don’t over promise to your boss or client just to keep them happy. Instead manage expectations and then exceed them.

My favourite character from the original Star Trek series is Scotty, the ships engineer. Scotty had a thankless job.

Captain Kirk was always asking Scotty to do the impossible. The captain would ask Scotty how long it would take to repair the ship and then ignore the answer. Most of the time Scotty was lucky if he got half the time he asked for. Scotty seemed to spend most of his time on the show telling the captain that whatever he needed just couldn’t be done.

I liked Scotty because he would do what I sometimes failed to do. He would say no when required. We are often under enormous pressure to say yes to our clients or boss. We fear that if we do not we will fail to win the work or we may lose our job.

The problem is that if we promise the impossible it will come back to bite us. Scotty’s way is better.

Dan Sheerman, one of our front end developers at Headscape, is an example of somebody who follows Scotty’s example. He will not agree to something he is not 100% sure he can deliver, and deliver right.

No doubt Dan is going to kill me for using this photo.
No doubt Dan is going to kill me for using this photo. Despite appearances, Dan is not a serial killer.

But Dan shares another characteristic with Scotty, he often delivers the impossible in the end.

If you watch the show you will know that although Scotty says it cannot be done, he inevitably works out a way of doing it. That is like Dan. Dan won’t promise to deliver something he is not sure about. But, he will almost always fine a way. In fact he often becomes obsessional about finding that way.

Both Scotty and Dan are clever. They lower expectations and then exceed them in spectacular fashion. I have seen Dan come back with solutions far superior to the impossible approach I first requested.

By not over promising Dan takes the pressure off himself. This gives him time to think and explore different approaches. It also helps educate his colleagues, setting realistic expectations.

It is also important to note how Dan, lowers expectations. Unlike Scotty he doesn’t just say “it cannot be done”. Instead he takes time to explain the problems. Just saying no is a roadblock that leads to arguments. By explaining the issues you can work on the problem together.

I have so much respect for Dan. He is one of the best front-end coders I have ever met. The quality of his code is exceptional and he seems to produce it in a fraction of the time mere mortals work. But more importantly he is great at managing people’s expectations. Because of him Headscape gets to look like a miracle worker and that is good for business.