I was out with a friend last night and we got onto the subject of how it seemed difficult for smart people to take advantage of simple opportunities. I’ve both seen and been the guy who sees a market opportunity far ahead of the pack, moves quickly to seize the opportunity, but ultimately fails to make it.

The good news is that I’m developing a better understanding of why this happens and I’m going to tell all.

There’s probably dozens of reasons why smart people are at an entrepreneurial disadvantage.

Of those reasons, one of the most subtle and insidious is trying to over-deliver, to burst into the market with a killer solution that will guarantee market dominance for a long time to come. That sounds seductive but there are a few problems with that approach:

  • If your idea is wrong, it takes longer to fail. When there’s a risk of failure, you want to learn your lesson as quickly as possible and move on. Learning by failure can be a good thing, but the quicker you learn what you need to know and get out, the better.
  • While you’re building the killer solution, other people are making good money by selling merely adequate solutions.
  • Your potential customers may not be able to understand the solution, even if it’s right. As an example, let’s say you have a customer who wants to launch the first orbital satellite. What he wants is a booster rocket. Being smart, you realize that the best solution to the problem is a reusable shuttle with recovery and repair capabilities. While you spend years designing a shuttle and trying to sell customers on something that looks more prone to failure, your competitors get rich putting satellites into orbit with booster rockets. Eventually they use the money they earned doing this to build a shuttle, while you tell your buddies that you could have done that. Wrong!

Over-Delivery Disease comes in many forms. It’s just as insidious on smaller scale consulting jobs. Another example: You’re a developer of web solutions. Your client asks you to set up a system for managing mailing lists.

The “Smart” Approach

After talking to the client, you realize that what they really need is mailing lists integrated with a full online community building solution that includes forums, customizable user pages, and so on. But your client’s budget isn’t big enough for that. Being smart, you realize that the client won’t achieve their goals with just a mailing list, so you pitch a community solution and low-ball the bid. The client bites, you get the project.

In the end, you deliver the project late. If you break even you’re lucky. The client is unhappy and doesn’t understand the system you built, but eventually figures out how to use it — to manage mailing lists!

The client’s perception is that you took more money and more time to deliver something that seemed simple, and your chances of repeat business are diminished.

A Better Approach

You help the client clearly define the business objectives that led them to ask for a mailing list. You indicate that over the long term they will want to move to a community solution, but that mailing lists are a good first step. You help them define which objectives can realistically be achieved with mailing lists, and which cannot. You schedule a review of the effectiveness of the project a few months after launch, then you implement a simple system. In doing so, you turn a profit.

During the review, you now have data that backs up your argument for a community solution. You also have a client who more clearly perceives the need for it. Better still, the objectives that have been met by the initial solution lead to an adequate budget and time line for implementing a full solution.

You implement the full solution on time, on budget, at a profit, and with a client who speaks highly of your services.

The Bottom Line

Attempting to over-deliver frequently results in incomplete or unprofitable projects. Ventures fail to get off the ground, eclipsed by “lesser” competitors who can’t see the future. Projects either fail outright or deliver well below expectations.

In my experience, people who try to over-deliver have the best of intentions. They’re trying to provide more value than what the market expects. If you show signs of Over-Delivery Disease, ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s wrong with delivering value at a level that’s comparable to your competitors and keeping the profit?
  • Is being an unregistered charity really part of your business plan?
  • Who made you financially responsible for your client’s limitations?
  • Is your over-delivery really compensating for a case of insecurity?

Those can be tough questions, but if you’re really smart, you’ll ask them every time your thoughts of over-delivery come to mind. If you’re wise, you’ll learn to scale back and just deliver what’s needed now, not what you can see in the future. Over-delivery is one of the best ways to make sure that the grand future you see never materializes.