Managing expectations

by Dorothy Kirk, PMP

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EXPECTATIONS ARE BELIEFS or assumptions about the future. They are usually hopeful and optimistic. We have the warning “expect the worst” because we so seldom do. More importantly, expectations are hardy. All they need to take root is the absence of evidence to the contrary. Once rooted, the unspoken word encourages their growth. They can develop and thrive without being grounded in reality. For this reason, project managers do daily battle with unrealistic expectations.

We cannot avoid setting expectations. Everything we do, everything we say, everything we don't do, everything we don't say sets expectations about what we will do or say in the future. Most of us set expectations unintentionally. For these reasons, expectations require managing to ensure that all involved hold the same expectations and that these expectations are realistic and intentional. The key to managing expectations is to set them intentionally.

Expectations Leave Room for Interpretation. Needing new kitchen countertops, I visited the showroom, picked out what I wanted, and arranged for the salesman to come out the next day to measure. Once measurements were complete, he said I could expect installation in seven-to-ten days. Mentally looking ahead, I projected when that would be. The day after he measured he called with a quote. In reviewing the quote I noticed he had omitted one countertop. He came out again to measure. In spite of this delay, my expectation for the completion date did not change. I went out of town for a few days and when I came back, expecting the workmen to show up to install the countertops, the salesman called to say the workmen needed to come out and take “final measurements.” When I asked when the work would be completed, he said in seven-to-ten days after the final measurement. Frustrated and disappointed, I insisted he make certain they measure no later than Monday. He guaranteed the workmen would be out Monday. By Monday noon I had heard nothing. I called the salesman, who was not in. He did not return my call. I began considering my other options. Who else could do the work? Finally, at 3 p.m., in frustration and anger, I called him again. He said he had not returned my call because he had not heard anything and had nothing to tell me. Even though I commented that the workman probably would not get out that day, he reassured me that they could still easily arrive before 5 p.m. But close to five he called to say that they could not get out until Wednesday. I told him how disappointed I was and that I was considering canceling my order. He tried to reassure me, but I no longer trusted him and resolved never to do business with him again.

Dorothy Kirk, PMP, in addition to being an active program manager, is a project management consultant and teacher. She is manager of the Office of Project Management in the Financial Solutions Group of Mynd.

The above is a case of mismanaged expectations. The end result may be good, but I am not going to feel good, no matter what. The pity is this situation could have been avoided:

The salesman should have explained the entire process from the beginning and made clear what “installation seven-to-ten days after measurement” really meant. Had I known of the two sets of measurements—one by him for quote purposes and one by the workmen for fabrication purposes—I would have held different expectations.

At each delay, I should have confirmed with him the projected installation date, instead of making silent assumptions of which he was unaware.

Even though he had nothing to report, he should have returned my call to reassure me that he was not avoiding me.

He should have taken the opportunity to “reset” my expectations when at 3 p.m. on Monday I expressed doubt that the workmen would get out that day. Instead, he encouraged me to continue to expect the unlikely.

Managing expectations is as important for us as project managers as it is for the cabinet salesman. The PMBOK® Guide definition of project management shows the significance of managing expectations: “Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities in order to meet or exceed stakeholder needs and expectations from a project.”

Managing expectations is also important to project managers for the following reasons:

The client can easily blur the line between an expectation and commitment. This blurring happens because when we want something to be true we act as though it is a given. Consequently, when a dispute arises on a project between the project manager and the client, the source can usually be traced to the confusion of an expectation with a commitment.

A client's expectations are the key to that client's satisfaction. If we allow clients to hold unrealistically high expectations, they will be unhappy, even angry, when they are not met. If we set unrealistically low expectations, we make ourselves look incompetent and lose the client's confidence, perhaps even their business. But if we set realistic expectations upfront, manage and live up to them, we are seen as fulfilling our commitments. Clients judge us on how well we set and manage expectations.

David Maister comments in Managing the Professional Services Firm [The Free Press, 1993]: “It is important to note that while goods are consumed, services are experienced. The professional service provider is (or should be) as much in the business of managing the client's experience with respect to professional services as in the business of executing technical tasks.” He goes on to say that if “the client perceives service at a certain level but expected something more (or different), then he or she will be dissatisfied.”

Keys to Managing Expectations. Most of what you do or don't do sets some expectation. Even silence sets or confirms expectations. Consider the case where the project manager has set the expectation that something will be delivered on a certain date, but the project runs into trouble. The project manager knows that a delivery date is almost certain to be missed yet fails to say anything to the client. His silence both confirms the client's expectation of an on-time delivery and misleads the client as a result.

Make certain your actions and words match your intentions. We have all had experiences with people who routinely say “yes” when they intend “no.”

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Be intentional about nonverbal communications. The words alone communicate only about 20 percent of the message. Body language, tone of voice, and so on, communicate the rest.

The way you present information can either clarify or muddy expectations. For example, if you estimate that something with take 483.5 hours, you are setting high expectations by your precision. The client, expecting the same precision in the outcome will be unhappy if it takes 495 hours. On the other hand, an estimate of 475–500 hours sets different expectations. The client will not be unhappy with 495 hours. Similarly, if you say something will be complete by November, you are inclined to interpret that to your advantage and believe that you have until 30 November. But the client is just as likely to interpret in their favor and expect a 1 November delivery.

Use formal project management processes and deliverables to help set the right expectations. The Project Charter can make certain the project begins with the client and the project team sharing the same expectations. A formal change management process manages expectations about what will be done, what won't, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Status reports are yet another tool to manage expectations.

Conduct an Expectation Gap Analysis at key points and compare the client's current expectations to reality. After identifying gaps, develop an action plan to align expectations with reality.

Perform a stakeholder analysis as a means of surfacing, understanding, and addressing the expectations of different stakeholder groups that may hold conflicting expectations. Without resolving these conflicts, some stakeholder group is guaranteed to be dissatisfied.

Neil Glass suggests making the Expectations Exchange [Management Masterclass, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1996] part of every meeting. At the beginning of a meeting, after reviewing the objectives and agenda, ask whether anyone has any additional expectations. Although he suggests this at the beginning of a meeting, this technique can be used at the end of a meeting as well to determine the expectations people are walking away with.

Distinguish between the theoretical yes and the committed yes. I once observed a meeting with a client in which some work required to accomplish certain business objectives by a key date was discussed. No details were given about the work—the requirements, the complexity, and so forth. Yet when the client asked the project manager if his company could do the work, the manager answered an unqualified “yes.” I was uneasy because I knew the manager intended a theoretical yes but that the client heard a committed yes. Theoretically, the company could do the work, but whether they could do it within the client's time frame was something he could not answer without more information from the client and more analysis on the company's part.

Managing expectations begins with understanding and ends with fulfillment. But the key is the process of aligning expectations with the reality that occurs in between. Managing expectations requires good communication and negotiation skills along the way

Exhibit 1. Managing expectations begins with understanding and ends with fulfillment. But the key is the process of aligning expectations with the reality that occurs in between. Managing expectations requires good communication and negotiation skills along the way.

What should the manager have done? He needed to show that the company was able to help and wanted the business. Yet he failed to understand the expectation he was setting. To properly set that expectation, a simple qualifying statement such as “Before we can commit to a date, however, we need to see the details of the work” would have done the job.

Seize every opportunity to align expectations with reality. Too often we pass up opportunities to align expectations because we are holding onto the false hope that things will somehow work out. We wait till the very last minute to inform the client of a change, hoping against hope for a miracle. But it doesn't come, and at the last minute we drop the bomb. This is the worst thing we can do. The client, who has had no time to prepare, feels we have known all along and have withheld the information. When this happens, we lose the client's trust and damage a relationship that may take a long time to repair. The sad thing is that the client probably gave us many opportunities to reset their expectations, but we threw them away.

Follow through on all action items, risk management activities, and to-do lists. Just creating these things set expectations. If you have a list of action items with vague accountabilities, the client's expectation is that you, the project manager, are accountable. If that is not the case, make the accountabilities clear. More importantly, do not provide this kind of information if you do not intend to take action and follow through. To do so will further damage your credibility.

Along this same line, do not ask for the client's suggestions for improvement if you do not intend to do something with their input. This especially applies to the post-project review. It is important to get the client's view at the close of a project, but it is even more important to act on what we learn. As Jim Clemmer states, “If you're not prepared to respond or try to close the performance gaps your customers and partners identify, don't ask. Asking for their input raises their expectations. Even if your performance gap stays the same, you've just widened the performance gap.” [Pathways to Performance, Prima Publishing, 1995].

Learn to deliver bad news. No project goes perfectly—there will always be some bad news. Project managers need to communicate it in a way that builds, rather than erodes, trust. Several techniques, such as reframing, require more expertise than others, but the important points are simple:

Don't delay or avoid. This is one situation that is not likely to get better with time.

Communicate openly and in person. Do not deliver bad news via e-mail or voicemail.

Expect some anger and disappointment. Do not get angry in return or become emotional.

Be prepared to explain the impact of the news. For example, never say the project is going to be late without being able to give a new date. I have seen project managers communicate a missed date, and then when asked for a revised date, they have no answer.

Be prepared to discuss alternatives.

Inform the client of things you are doing to see that this does not continue to happen. As always, make certain you follow through.

The process of managing expectations is largely a communication process and does not lend itself to a sequential process diagram. Nonetheless, Exhibit 1 summarizes some of the key points.

Hints and Techniques. There's nothing magic here; you just need to:

State the obvious. What is obvious to you may be obscure to others.

Do the simple things: be accessible, return phone calls, follow up, call occasionally just to make contact or to deliver good news.

Provide visibility into project processes. Explain what is going to happen. Prepare the client.

Share information.

Look ahead and warn of potential obstacles or problems. Practice proactive risk management.

Disclose problems early. Follow the act early, act small principle [Gerald Weinberg, Anticipating Change, Dorset House Publishing, 1997]. Don't wait until the last minute to inform the client of problems.

Recognize that trust is the most important thing in our relationship with our clients. For every action, ask whether it will build trust or erode trust.

Back up verbal agreements and conversations in which expectations were set with written documentation.

As last tidbits of wisdom, here's what three contemporary writers have to say about managing expectations:

Being very compliant with a client, not making our wants known, going along with something we don't have confidence in, all make us feel bent-over. So we work bent-over. The client also notices our bent-over position and, after a short while, begins to think that is the way we normally work—bent-over. As a result, when the client needs someone who works standing up straight, someone else gets called in. [Peter Block, Flawless Consulting, Pfeiffer & Company, 1981].

Managing expectations is not simply finding out what the client wants; it is guiding the client to expect what you can provide. [Jolyon Hallows, Information Systems Project Management, Amacom, 1998].

Implicit expectations—these human wants, wishes, and desires—are the baggage we carry with us into a relationship, into a company, or into a business as customers. … Wise managers make things very explicit, spelling out ‘what we do and don't do’ so that the client can say ‘Okay, we understand and feel good about that’ or ‘We feel good about one area but would suggest another approach to serving our needs in this other area.’ They explicitly state what their mission is, what their resources are, and what they have chosen to do and not do with their resources. [Stephen Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, 1990].

ALL STAKEHOLDERS HAVE EXPECTATIONS; they include expectations about schedule, budget, quality, scope, deliverables, team performance, project benefits, and the future after the project. To maintain a healthy project, the masterful project manager listens for, understands, and manages these expectations. ■

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network August 2000

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