Sandbagging means to under promise and over deliver. It’s a bad habit for countless organizations and teams. Despite enormous pressure to drive growth and shareholder value — and lofty goals about disrupting traditional markets — sandbagging persists. It manifests itself in lackluster product development and subpar customer service. And it metastasizes into underperforming teams and underwhelmed customers.

Look around. Anecdotal evidence abounds. When software release life cycles deliver table-stakes features — rather than true competitive differentiation — sandbagging is the culprit. When markets are defined by multitudinous offerings with little distinction between vendors — sandbagging is present. When employees establish personal goals that fall short of higher-level executive go-to-market strategies — they may be sandbagging. In short, sandbagging is and always has been consistent and pervasive.

It’s human nature — rooted in the survival instinct — to expend as little energy as possible to complete a task. Efficiency of effort is necessary and practical when survival is the objective. But it’s the survival instinct — the inclination to aim low due to fear of consequences — that leads to sandbagging or under promising.

Aim high and over deliver

Goal setting and sandbagging have a strained relationship. Goals can open the door to sandbagging even though they’re meant to do the exact opposite. When best practices become your worst enemy, you have to stop and reevaluate. The practice of tying bonuses to goals is an example. Consider the SMART goal-setting framework, where the “A” stands for “attainable.” SMART goals are universally accepted for their ability to measure and support overall business objectives. Attainable Objectives are also part of the OKR framework in Measure What Matters. They’re akin to what author John Doerr refers to as committed Objectives.

Committed Objectives are often tied to metrics like sales and revenue goals. They’re the must achieve Objectives within an OKR cycle. Committed Objectives are essential because they help gauge progress toward higher-level aspirational Objectives. Committed Objectives still need to represent some change in outcome, such as business growth, rather than business as usual.

Aspirational Objectives, on the other hand, involve higher risk and are more challenging. They can originate from anywhere and often require company-wide mobilization to achieve. Aspirational Objectives, when established within an OKR framework, encourage over promising without penalty. Setting the bar higher energizes and pushes new thinking. Failure rates for aspirational Objectives are higher.

In Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz illustrates how the company lost sight of a core aspirational goal — to make great cars that people wanted to drive — by narrowly focusing on attainable goals:

*These ranged from “increase market share,” “reduce assembly hours per vehicle” and “speed time to market” to “achieve diversity targets” and “reduce LTI (senior executive) count.” Buried somewhere in the middle of this grand mosaic was a little cell, no bigger than the others, which read, “achieve product excellence.” … There, on the screen, was the core of the GM problem: “product excellence” was merely one out of 25 or 36 things the company should work on. *

When you restrict goals to only what is incremental, unremarkable, or merely attainable, and then take the additional step of linking performance reviews and compensation, it creates an environment that rewards employees for under promising and sandbagging. This is something Lutz, who spearheaded the turnaround for the struggling automaker, was familiar with:

*One VLE (vehicle line executive) came to see me in “one-on-one” time and brought his scorecard. He made sure that I understood that he had met or beaten every single target… He deserved, in his opinion, a big juicy chunk of that special VLE compensation fund. “How’s it selling?” I asked. “Well, really not that well; the press on it was lousy, and the public is unenthused. But I can’t be held accountable for that. I was handed my numerical goals, which were signed off by everybody, and if I make them all, that’s success!” *

As Doerr points out, when goals are tied to compensation, employees start playing defense and stop stretching for amazing. In short, they sandbag. When OKRs are based on what the team believes it can achieve without changing anything they’re currently doing, there’s a risk for sandbagging and under promising.

It’s essential that goals are aspirational and potentially unattainable. Only then will teams deliver competitive products and superior customer service. A good test put forth by Doerr is this: If you ask your customers what they really want, does your aspirational Objective meet or exceed their request? Another test from Doerr: Teams who consistently meet all of their committed and aspirational goals without needing all of their headcount or capital are hoarding resources, not pushing their teams, or both.

The point of OKRs is to drive excellence in growth. OKRs help you stretch — and, perhaps, over deliver — if they’re aspirational. They must, by nature, be uncomfortable and potentially unattainable. When employees under promise and under perform, likewise when product releases fail to excite or differentiate, the problem is often rooted in the way the goals were established at the outset.

Shared goals lead to objective Objectives

Aspirational goals serve as a lodestar for directing team efforts. They’re also a great tool for confronting under performance. When employee behaviors undermine aspirational Objectives, OKRs and CFRs (Conversation, Feedback, and Recognition) clarify the path back to realignment. An engineering team focused on product excellence can work toward the shared goal of competitive differentiation:

Gain product superiority within the consideration set for our key markets
Bring to market one unique technology feature that doubles retention in our top customer segment (i.e., simplify administration, reduce CPU utilization, increase security, streamline integration).
Land in the top third of the curve on the Challenger section for the Gartner Magic Quadrant.

This helps leaders and teams align efforts toward high-level aspirational Objectives. And it helps flag efforts that don’t align with the goal of creating true competitive differentiation. When team efforts are aligned toward aspirational Objectives that everyone agrees on, any progress toward that goal is a net improvement.

Where can I get more information?

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