by Bud Baker, Contributing Editor
THE CONNECTING LEG to O'Hare was nothing unique, just the sort of flight that is so much a staple of project management life. I slid into my seat as a boisterous band of youth missionaries bounded onto the aircraft. One crashed into the seat next to me, and politely introduced himself as Josh.
It turned out that this was Josh's very first flight, and he was scared. His friends weren't making him feel any better, loudly and frequently reminding him of the less pleasant aspects of flight, from harrowing crash stories to the location and proper operation of the air sickness bag.
Despite the dire predictions of his friends and Josh's death grip on his armrests, the American Eagle jet actually managed to take off. And, to my surprise, Josh found himself fascinated by the magic of flight. I offered him my window seat, and he spent most of the flight with his nose smooshed up against the Plexiglas, watching the world stretch out to the horizon. At one point, he pulled out a journal, and I confess that I peeked at the words he wrote: “The clouds are so beautiful—I could almost reach out and touch them …”
I wondered later why Josh's reaction to the flight was so different from mine. Certainly the novelty of flying explained some of the difference. But objectively, we had had the same experience: an on-time takeoff, a smooth flight, a safe arrival. Same soft drinks, same peanuts. But while for me the flight was mundane, for Josh it was a life-changing, never-to-be-forgotten experience.
I suggest that the answer is to be found in our expectations. We judge the quality of an experience by the extent to which it meets or exceeds our subjective anticipations. That flight met my expectations, but it wildly exceeded Josh's: he feared an hour of airsickness and— far worse—embarrassment in front of his friends. What he got instead was a stupendous panorama of Indiana farmland and an up-close introduction to the magnificent Chicago skyline.
Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal, and is a member of the PMJ Editorial Review Board. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As project managers, we help set the expectations of our clients, and our clients in turn base their perception of quality upon those expectations. Is it possible that we can meet all our schedule milestones, exceed every specification and cost threshold, and still have a dissatisfied client?
Of course it is, and we usually have only ourselves to blame. We start projects in the “brochure phase” where we feel free to make lofty promises in order to get our effort approved. We thus contribute to our clients’ high—sometimes unrealistically high—expectations. It's only later that the laws of physics and economics conspire to undo the promises we so blithely made in the marketing stage of the project.
When it comes to managing client expectations, the larger the project, the larger the problem. This is true for a number of reasons. First, big projects mean high stakes, for which the pressure to sell can be irresistible. Defense columnist Fred Reed once wrote that selling a major program to Congress required the project manager to lie about it first. That sort of calculated optimism isn't limited to the Department of Defense.
Finally, the larger the project, the larger the number of people involved. Every one of these many project team members—managers, engineers, marketers, schedulers, and more—is capable of building up client expectations, often without the approval or even the awareness of the project manager. Further, large projects tend to last a very long time. Thus, project managers in the brochure phase often have good reason to believe that they will have departed long before it becomes necessary to deliver on the optimistic promises they've made.
Maybe this is all inevitable, just part of the system in which project managers must operate. But if we understand the power of expectations, we can understand that our clients’ perception of our performance is as much based on our marketing puffery as it is on specs, schedules, and budgets. Perhaps we can begin to follow Clement Studebaker's simple dictum on quality: “Always underpromise, and overdeliver.”
AND TO MYYOUNG FRIEND whose sense of wonder caused me to reconsider my own somewhat jaded expectations: Thanks, Josh.
PM Network September 1999