Great Expectations (Management)

One of the skills every marketer (if not every person) needs to master is the art of managing expectations.

Managing expectations is a “Goldilocks” task–too high, and they’ll be impossible to meet; too low, and they’ll detract from your accomplishments; just right, and you’ll be a hero.  Of the potential pitfalls, high expectations are perhaps the most dangerous.

High expectations are seductive.  It feels good to have everyone saying good things about you.  “The Next Bill Gates” is a favorite chestnut that the business press dusts off whenever a hot new company with a photogenic founder appears on the scene (see Andreesen, Marc; Abrams, Jonathan; and Rose, Kevin).  But no matter how good it feels to ride the wave of hype, sooner or later, you’ll have to deliver the goods.  Too-high expectations carry a double-whammy: When they prove to be wrong, not only is the result a downer, it kills your credibility.

Take the impact of expectations on the current U.S. presidential race.  Senator Hillary Clinton began as the prohibitive favorite.  As recently as November, the Iowa Futures Market (the best predictor of presidential politics, since real money is at stake)  showed that her chances of earning the Democratic nomination were 75%.  That’s what made her third place finish in Iowa so shocking.  And as a result, in the immediate aftermath of the loss, she plummeted to a projected 25% chance of winning the nomination.


After that, however, the expectations game shifted.  Now the high expectations shifted to Senator Barack Obama, as a tidal wave of coverage (helped along by his own strength at inspirational oratory) sent his poll numbers skyrocketing.

But while the excitement helped Obama’s campaign in many ways, allowing expectations to get ahead of reality came back to haunt him.

Clinton had held a 17-point lead in New Hampshire, but it seemingly crumbled overnight as poll after poll showed Obama leading in the state.  On election night, Clinton squeaked out a 3-point win.  So who actually won?  Was it Obama, for making up 14 points in less than a week, only to fall short at the end?  Or was it Clinton, who held off her challenger when all expected her to lose.

The race was close enough for either explanation to take hold, but it was the latter narrative of Clinton’s resurgence (despite being a frontrunner who had lost 14 points off her lead) that ended up holding sway.

We saw a near replay on Super Tuesday this week.  After the South Carolina election (an unexpectedly large victory for Obama), Hillary and Bill Clinton indicated that they expected an overall victory once they took their message to the broader public.

Once again an Obama surge in the polls dropped the expectations for Clinton; I often thought that the national media was openly rooting for Obama to land a knockout blow.  Here in California, poll after poll indicated that Obama had closed a 20-point lead, and had even pulled ahead of Clinton.

When the dust settled, an objective analysis showed a near-perfect tie.  Obama won more states, but Clinton won the bigger prizes in New York and California.  Obama won the critical swing state of Missouri, but Clinton overcame a tidal wave of endorsements to win Massachusetts.  Obama came out with slightly more delegates, but it was statistically insignificant.

So who did win?  Nobody.  But both campaigns tried to frame the results as a win for their side–Obama by pointing out that he had overcome a big deficit in the earlier polls, Clinton, by arguing that she had done better than projected in the most recent polls.

Just politics?  Perhaps, but just ask the folks at Joost, who went from being the future of television (Sequoia had to beg Joost to take their money), to the walking dead in less than 9 months.

Great expectations require even greater execution.  ‘Tis better to set and exceed realistic goals than it is to ride the wave of hype…right into the trash heap.

Published by Chris Yeh

Chris has been building Internet businesses since 1995. He has been a founder, founding employee, or seed investor in almost a dozen startups, including PBworks, and advises a wide array of startups ranging from network equipment makers to vertical search engines. He liked his investment in PBworks so much, he decided to join the company. Chris earned two degrees from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

One thought on “Great Expectations (Management)

  1. One additional thought on expectations: Part of the danger in setting expectations too low is that at the end of the day, moral victory is no substitute for real victory.

    I’ve read a lot of stories reporting that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is trying to set expectations that Barack Obama will win every single primary and caucus in the month of February (some 10 contests in all).

    I know that this theoretically makes it look like a big win if Clinton manages to go, say, 1 for 10 or 2 for 10, but there is a limit to relative versus absolute expectations.

    If you’re trying to win, predicting that you’re going to lose seems to be a rather dangerous tactic–just ask Rudy Giuliani.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: