When you examine the Presidential Debate held last Friday, when arm-chair pundits (including myself) discuss the performances of John McCain and Barack Obama, the main factor that inevitable arises is expectation. Everyone expected Obama to perform better than McCain when it came to the economy. And by most accounts, he did. While certain a win for the Obama campaign, he merely met expectations.
When the debate topic turned to foreign affairs, McCain was considered the strong candidate. But, in my opinion, McCain did not out-perform Obama. Obama held his own and the second half of the debate was a draw. But the fact that McCain did not deliver a knockout means Obama exceeded expectations. In that regard, Obama cemented the debate outcome as a victory for him.
Managing expectations is an important part of the debate process — and of leadership in general. If you promise too much and deliver only 80% of it, than you will be perceived as a failure. But, if you promise something more reasonable, it is easier to be seen as succeeded or surpassing your promise. And this is true of an employee's output, a project's outcome, or a company's revenue. If you expect too much, you inevitable will be disappointed. This is true in business (AOL Time Warner merger), tech (iPhone 3G), or art (Star Wars: Episode I).
Of course, managing expectations can sometimes lead to incongruence. This Thursday, the Vice-Presidential debate will inevitably be a draw. Why? Sarah Palin only has to sound half-way decent to not be a failure — the various interviews with her have made expectations so low. Of course, Joe Biden may deliver one of his gaffes and simply hand the debate over to Palin. Of course, Biden putting his foot in his mouth is becoming somewhat expected, so it may just be a wash. We will have to wait and see.
Either way, I expect an interesting debate.