The Paradox of Exceeding Expectations (and How to Do It Regularly)

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There's a hotel in downtown Boston that, like almost every hotel in every city, offers a valet service for your car. Pull up, leave the keys, and take your ticket.

On this particular ticket is a number. The number uniquely identifies your car to the man at the valet desk.

Imagine it's later in the day, and you feel like taking a drive over the river into Cambridge. Maybe you want to walk around the campuses of MIT and Harvard or hang out at a local coffee shop, of which there are dozens. (They have an exposed brick surplus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Whatever your plans, you decide to drive -- not necessarily the best move, considering Boston's roads make absolutely no sense at all, but hey, I'm not gonna tell you how to live your life.

In your hotel room, you grab your ticket and scan the words printed just below your ID number. "Thanks for using our valet service! Call us with the number above, and your car will be ready in 30 minutes."

And so, you call the front desk about a half hour before you need the car. You expect them to say thanks, the car will be ready in 30 minutes.

But then the man at the valet desk answers.

"34891? Got it. Car will be up in 10 minutes."

It feels like a gift. You were thinking 30, and they said 10. You quickly grab your coat and head down to the lobby where, to your surprise, your car is already idling by the front door. You glance at your watch.

It's been five minutes.

The next day, you again decide to take out your car from the valet service. This time, maybe you'll head down to Boston's South End. (If you ever do, by the way, be sure to eat at SRV. Not only is it one of the best restaurants in all of Boston and my personal favorite, but the executive chef will be appearing on Unthinkable later this year.)

To start your trip to the South End, you once again pick up your valet ticket in your room a full 30 minutes ahead of time. After all, that's their policy, that's what's written on the ticket -- although you don't expect that to be what happens.

The man at the valet desk answers, and this time, you know what he's about to say.

"Okay, so 34891. Car will be up in 10 minutes."

You smirk. You know what's about to happen. Their policy is 30 minutes. They tell you 10 minutes. They deliver in five. That's what you expect will happen.

You quickly grab your coat and head down to the lobby once again.

The car isn't there.

Oh.

You glance at your watch. It's been five minutes. Okay, maybe it'll be six. You look at your phone. Two more minutes pass. Still no car. You gaze through the revolving door, feeling a burning sensation in your belly. You're kinda pissed off ... for reasons you recognize as completely irrational. Finally, after 10 minutes, the car arrives.

You know you shouldn't be, but you're annoyed. After all: Their policy is 30 minutes. They told you 10. And they delivered in 10. That should feel so refreshing, but thanks to yesterday, it feels frustrating.

Such is the compounding problem of exceeding expectations: As soon as you do, you've changed their expectations.

Every experience comes with a set of expectations -- the expectations we set for ourselves, the expectations we set for others, the expectations others set for us. The problem is, if we exceed them even once, then THAT becomes the new bar we must get over the next time. What was once exceptional no longer is.

It gets worse: This is a process that is largely out of our control. Yes, we know that THIS time, we might not have so much success, but we just can't help ourselves. We believe we will.

And yes, the valet service knows that THIS time, they probably won't deliver the car in five minutes, so they aim for 10, because that is well below the policy of 30 ... except YOU just can't help believing it'll arrive in five thanks to last time. 

It's necessary but far from sufficient to exceed expectations once. You have to do so consistently. Problem is, "expectations" are a moving target. The bar gets ever higher.

So how are we supposed to exceed expectations? Are we doomed to create an ever-higher bar? No, of course not.

But doesn't the valet need to keep delivering the car ever-faster, until it's instant? No, of course not.

Here's something that's well within our control that does indeed allow us to keep exceeding expectations: We can master the art of reinvention.

Not giant pivots. Not overhauls. Not stunts. Not shortcuts. Not random acts of creativity.

Reinvention. A process of consistent discovery designed to produce ever-more refreshing things. The path by which we can exceed expectations -- not by moving the bar higher, then leaping over it, but by constantly changing the rules of this game entirely.

For example, what if, instead of needing to deliver that car ever-faster, the valet service merely needs to create an ever-changing but ever-delightful experience? Wouldn't that exceed expectations? Here's how that might look:

  • The first time you call down, it was enough to merely tell you on the phone that the car would be ready in 10 minutes. You were expecting them to say 30. Now they must deliver the car in 10 minutes.

  • The next time, you now expect 10, even though the stated policy is 30. Why? You experienced the work, which changed the context, which changed your expectations. So this time, it's merely table stakes that they deliver the car in ten. So now, they face a choice: Can they deliver it in five? And the next time in two? Or perhaps, they can change the rules of the game. Instead of a transaction, they build a relationship. "Thanks so much for your patience, Mary! The car will be out in 10 minutes." That's what you expect, but you DIDN'T expect them to know your name. Not a hard thing for a hotel to know about a person: they know which room you're calling from and who is in that room; they identify each car by a unique number. But that tiny little reinvention of the experience makes it better.

  • The next time, you're expecting them to both deliver the car in 10 minutes AND know your name. Perhaps here, they deliver the car in five minutes instead. Or maybe that's impossible, and so they offer you a warm cup of coffee or a nice, gooey chocolate chip cookie. "Thanks for your patience, Mary!"

Consistently exceeding expectations feels impossible. The logical conclusion is that the valet service would merely have your car ready at all times, instantly. But if we embrace that consistently great work consistently changes, we'd stop focusing on the sliding scale of competency and focus on the wide array of ways to reinvent the work.

The goal isn't to find the one thing that works, then keep refining it. The goal is to improve the experience overall. That goes well beyond a single tactic or strategy. That requires consistent reinvention.

Everyone is capable of changing the experience in small ways. Everyone is capable of reinvention.

Posted on March 6, 2019 .