A bit of business wisdom you’ve probably heard, attributed to business management guru Tom Peters, is “Under-promise and over-deliver.”
A good idea under most circumstances, but in my experience, it’s advice few people follow. Think back over your last month of interaction with colleagues, suppliers, customers and partners; how many times were you promised something that was delivered late, if it was delivered at all? How many times have you sent an email and not received a reply?
Those were rhetorical questions; if you interact with human beings at all in any context, business or personal, unless you’re a powerful and feared dictator, you are continually disappointed by people’s inability to deliver on their promises, or simply to manage their communications.
What’s your rule on email replies? Unless I desperately need something from you, I have a “chase once” rule. Around a week after my original email, if I haven’t heard back from you, I “re-send”, with the word “RE-SENDING” inserted at the beginning of the subject line, and a short note atop my original text saying, “Just thought I would re-send in case this fell through the digital cracks.” That often does the trick, but equally often, it does not.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I don’t want an email from Roberto. I’m not interested in his idea, or his request, or his whatever. I’m busy and I want him to leave me alone.”
Well, that’s fine. Just say so. I’m a big boy, and I promise I won’t cry. In fact, I will thank you for your consideration, and I’ll save you the trouble of ignoring my follow-up email!
After that one chaser, though, I’m done (unless, as I noted above, I’m really desperate). You will have successfully ignored me out of your life.
The downside, if you care, and you may not, is that I will think you’re incapable of doing your job. That you’re so overwhelmed by the contents of your inbox you can’t spend 15 seconds telling me you’re not interested in whatever it is I had to say. [And my belief is you are so overwhelmed you didn’t even read what I had to say! “You may have won 10 million dollars!”]
The further downside is that I will mention you in conversation with my friends, colleagues, partners and customers as someone who can’t manage his/her inbox. You may not care about that that either, but it’s a small world.
The Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy suggested that everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, but if you’re well-traveled, you’re fewer steps away than that, and perhaps many fewer steps. It really is a small world.
With a partner, I just finished writing an important proposal, and in order to have a chance of winning the contract, we needed several very small but important pieces of the puzzle from another contributor. Before we started writing, we tried to figure out whether or not the contributor would be able to deliver what she’d promised. We were unsure, but decided to go ahead anyway.
Eventually, very, very close to the deadline, after we had chased her several times, she did deliver. Not all of what she’d promised, but enough that we were able to submit the proposal. But it was a close thing, and almost a very annoying thing.
Because if at the outset she’d said, “I can’t get you those documents,” we would have accepted that and made the decision to not write the proposal. Instead, we devoted significant time and energy to the process, and until the 11th hour, we were unsure if we’d be able to file the submission. Did I say annoying?
One more story. It’s possible to go too far with “under-promising”. Recently, I offered to do something for a non-profit organization for which I’m a board member. The senior managers rejected my suggestion, saying, “We’re too busy.”
Under ordinary circumstances, a perfect example of “under-promising”. In fact, it’s “zero-promising”. But in this case, I was offering to do all the work, to deliver the final product to them, gift-wrapped and tied neatly with a bow. A product that unquestionably would advance the objectives of the organization. Who’s “too busy” for that? Well, these people were, it seems. Sigh …
Last thing: if you’re one of those people who struggles not with “inbox zero” but “inbox 2,000”, you can help yourself by replying to people like me the first time I write to you. You can even automate the process. In your email client, where you’ve written your “signatures” (e.g. “Sent from my iPad”), you can add a few signatures that will help you deal with stuff from people like me.
You could write one that says, “I’m really sorry I don’t have time to get back to you properly on this. I am super-busy and the moment and trying to get a number of different things out the door before their deadlines. If this is really important, can you do me a favor and ring me up on the phone? And if it’s less important, would you mind chasing me again in two weeks? Thanks!”
You may think, “What good will that do, asking him to send this again in two weeks?” Well, chances are, if you can’t get to whatever it is I want within two weeks, I won’t be interested. In the case I mentioned above, the proposal I just finished, if that contributor had said, “I won’t be able to get to this for two weeks,” my partner and I would have said, “No problem,” and made the decision to not write the proposal.
The pressure would have been off the contributor, and my partner and I would have been able to enjoy our weekends.
Not that we’d know what do do with a free weekend if we had one … we’re entrepreneurs!
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.