Project Management Institute

Inspect what you expect


Don't “trust” anyone. Question everything. Assume nothing.


The phrase “inspect what you expect” has been around for a long time, but its message goes unheeded for many project managers. Who hasn't had a project where a team member insists that things are fine? That the delivery will be on schedule and will meet the quality expected? But then the delivery date arrives, and it's not ready.

Case in point: I was asked to perform a review on a troubled project. The project originally was planned to run about eight months but continued for nearly twice that without convincing data on when it will be complete. After a project review and the resulting recommendations, the project was replanned and estimated to be complete in another six months.

One month later, I asked the project manager, Sarah (not her real name), what were her top three priorities? Every project manager must deliberately manage these daily. (See “The No. 1 Reason for Projects in Trouble,” PM Network, February 2000.) After some thought, she eventually identified her top three. Her top priority was to validate the long list of requirements with the client to ensure that both parties had the same interpretation.

This was a new six-week activity that she had assigned to John; he was just starting the fifth week. I asked if John was on schedule. She said “yes.” I asked how she knew that. Sarah said that John, a senior level project member, repeatedly announced in the weekly project tracking meetings that he was on schedule. Because there were only two weeks left of the six-week activity, I asked Sarah if John and the client would work over the one remaining weekend available, if necessary, to protect their commitments to the schedule. Sarah said that she had full trust and confidence in John. After all, she said, “John is a professional.”

When your instincts alert you that there is something suspect about a commitment, trust those instincts. We all have remarkably good instincts.

John was four weeks late in completing the activity and did not work any weekends. Moreover, John said the activity “should be completed by next week” for the next four weeks. Ouch!

If your clients or senior management micromanage your projects, it's for a reason: You invited it by your inaction. When a project member has made a commitment to you either directly or by way of the project plan, what are you doing to ensure that the words, “I am on schedule” are true and meet your expectations?

As the project manager, you are the commander of your ship. If a failure occurs, you are responsible and accountable—even if someone else misses a commitment—the failure occurred under your command.

All eyes are watching you. These eyes belong to the other project members, the client, your boss or some other project stakeholder. They are relying on your leadership, your integrity, your boldness to assert yourself when and where needed. (See “Boldness! You Cannot be a Consistently Effective Leader If You Don't Have It,” PM Network, January 2000.) Consistently successful projects don't just happen; they are made to happen.

Project members must know what they are being held accountable for; that is, what you expect from them. Furthermore, these expectations must be measurable. Project members then routinely must report progress against those measured expectations.

As a general principle: Don't trust anyone. Question everything. Assume nothing. It's not personal. It's business. It's good business. How many times must a project manager get drawn into this trap? Requiring a trackable plan and routine progress reports demonstrates good leadership.

When your instincts alert you that there is something suspect about a commitment, trust those instincts. We all have remarkably good instincts. Too many of us are too soft to act upon those instincts. Be fair, but firm. Inspect what you expect. Your projects will benefit greatly, not to mention your career.

Now go make a difference! PM


Neal Whitten, PMP, president of The Neal Whitten Group (, is a speaker, trainer, consultant, mentor and author. His books include The EnterPrize Organization: Organizing Software Projects for Accountability and Success, published by PMI.

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