‘Underpromise and overdeliver’ is the mantra of many service providers, but hardly the ideal way to excite customers. So how do we manage expectations without dampening enthusiasm?
Last week I finished reading ‘the greatest novel of the 20th century’. It’s one of my favourites and it was probably my eighth reading, not counting all the sub-readings I did while studying it at school and university. For me, the quote on the cover is correct: Catch-22 is the greatest novel of the 20th century*.
Others beg to differ. Admittedly the novel does suffer from being complicated, with a very wide cast of characters and conceptual complexity, and from being too clever for its own good; only in this latest reading did I pick up several linguistic jokes I had missed in my previous seven readings. So why did this puffery work for me and not for Catch-22‘s detractors?
The first copy I read, property of my high school, was orange and battered with dog-eared pages and generally dishevelled. I didn’t expect much despite the quote. My very first reading largely caused confusion, punctuated by a few cheap laughs. As we studied the book, I grew to appreciate its genius. But I still felt the praise was overblown. And yet I persisted. Surely there was a reason the praise existed. Surely the person who supported the quote hadn’t staked his or her reputation on nothing.
I find this happens a lot with projects. Some are initiated with great fanfare and then peter out when they fail to deliver the benefits promised, some are ordinary, everyday projects that turn out really well and deliver more benefits then they set out to. The problem? Neither of these gets stakeholders excited and engaged about the project. The first is a disappointment, the second pleases but doesn’t excite.
The balance, I found, comes from communicating not what the project can or will (at some possibly vague future point) do but the fact the project exists at all. Someone cares about X! Someone wants to do something about Y! (I’m reading what someone considers to be the greatest novel of the 20th century!) Then it doesn’t matter whether or the project achieves what it set out to do, but that someone tried. Existential, I know, but maybe the only way to get excited about any project in the world is to be happy it exists at all. Can you think of other ways?
* With the proviso that I have not read every single novel published in the 20th century.